Lacy M. Johnson interviews Trajal Harrell over email in the days after the September 15 performance of Antigone, Jr., at TBA:13.
LJ: At Sunday night’s performance of Antigone, Jr., you introduced the piece by saying that you began the work with a question: what if one of the post-modern choreographers from Judson Church (Judson Dance Theater) had gone uptown to Harlem to perform in the ball scene? (Correct me if I’m stating that incorrectly.) I wonder if you could start by talking about this question. Why is it urgent to ask this question now (or at the time that you started working on the pieces)? Is it still an urgent question, in your view?
TH: In terms of urgency, I don’t work so much around this notion. What I was aware of was the sense that contemporary dance had become trapped in a revival of Judson aesthetics. Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto” had become a kind of rule book and a prescription for conceptual dance, which was the leading aesthetic in contemporary dance since the late 90s on the international scene. My work, I think, became significant because it had found a way to move beyond Judson aesthetics while simultaneously being connected to that history.
Quoting myself from another interview:
“Again, in the early 90’s, Judson Church aesthetic and principles provided a lot of foundation again for contemporary dance to rethink itself : primarily the notion of rejecting spectacle, virtuosity, and theatricality and reducing dance to its essential elements. Alternatively the Voguing tradition uses constructions of gender, artificiality, and and theatricality to create a fictional authenticity or “realness.” Thus, I was surprised to discover that these two movements started during the same historical moment, and by 2001, in my case, I felt it was the moment for a new criticality to arrive relating to Judson. Contemporary dance seemed stuck in the same recycling of Judson ideas and Yvonne Rainer’s no manifesto, and I was determined to do something new, even though that too was considered anti-contemporary during this time. Nonetheless, the lens of voguing allows me and you to see that the idea that Judson reduced dance to its essential elements is a fiction as well. Rather, those elements operate out of their own socio-cultural specificity and fictional authenticity. Therefore, from there I could begin to operate choreographically and aesthetically from a different vantage point regarding contemporary dance and voilà twelve years later the conversation is different in contemporary dance. So, we can say, I was interested in opening a new space in contemporary dance, but I wasn’t trying to do identity politics and break down the door for voguing to come in. That seemed obvious and of course when I first went to europe to show my work in 2005, no one in contemporary dance knew what voguing was, and now it’s included in a lot of programming, let’s say. I am proud that I could be a part of that change, yes, but it was an obvious point of inclusion suggested by the proposition. What was not so obvious was how to re-think Judson. Contemporary dance had become a cliché of boring conceptualism, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I wanted to scream most of the time in the theater. So like Toni Morrison, the novelist says, « I had to make the kind of dances (books) that I wanted to see. »
“For example in Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S), the small size in the series, I knew this piece would primarily been seen in very small theaters amongst dance cognesenti. I purposely made this work to propel the debate. I wanted to critique the kind of lazy late conceptualism that I saw proliferating in dance (people trying to make work like the people trying to work like the people trying to make work like Jerome Bel and say Xavier Le Roy). So right away (S) presents itself as a conceptual work and then it begins to slowly critique the way judson tenets have been appropriated in contemporary dance. I can do this because I have the lens of voguing as well as early postmodern dance in my toolbox, let’s say, and that creates different ways of seeing the cultural and political meanings the body and movement can have on the contemporary stage. ” (Festival d’Automne brochure)
LJ: To what extent do you think audiences need to be familiar with these histories when they come to the performances?
TH: Well, the project is about history. My work, in general, is about historical impossibilities, so familiarity with the history adds, of course. But that’s always the case with art. The negotiating factors change with each size. So with (S), I think it is essential. I made it, as I said for dance cognoscenti. For Antigone, Jr., of course, if you know the play Antigone that’s another aid. But the main thing I want the audience to be aware of in the room is not the history. Of course the history is important to the overall project and the gestalt of the series, but in Antigone, Jr., what is most important is the essence of tragedy, and how we as audience and performers begin to relate on that level. And that begins to be essentialized with the lost prop, not with a familiarity with contemporary dance history nor the history of ancient greek theater.
So all artists are working with the history of their discipline. The question for me, as an artist, has to do with providing different entry ways, so to speak. And that is what the different sizes do. The history is always there for you to go into, but there are different points of entry. These works are multi-layered. So how one peels back the layers over time: before coming to the theater, during, and after is the individuality and beauty of the artistic experience.
LJ: I’m glad you brought up the sizes. In your artist talk on Saturday you say you were involved in researching (or maybe just thinking about) size as it relates to fashion. I understand how that would translate to the size and scope of the pieces in the series. That is, I understand that the junior size, Antigone, Jr., is a performance for 125 people. But the room seated 250, and many folks were turned away from the performance (as I was at Made-to-Measure on Saturday evening). Can you talk a little about how and why the size of the audience affects each work?
TH: Scale is architectural. You experience a work differently depending on the size of the room and audience. I just experimented with this and found that it was totally different. It’s quite practical. A tiny black box theater produces different relations than the regime of the opera house.
In terms of Antigone, Jr., it’s the junior size, and i am working with smaller details than in a normal size, so to speak. Therefore, it doesn’t work if the audience is too big, of course. I also want the scale of the body to stay close to a human scale, which would change if you were further from the scene. The body would become visually smaller in scale. Rather, I want you to sense the energy on the front row and what we are doing there. You also need to sense everyone else in the room. The essence of tragedy is not a visual clue in this case. That anxiety that moves through the room when the prop is lost is contagious so it’s important that it not become, say, a cinematic trope. It’s experiential.
So there are limits on the number of people for each work. Scale is a part of the craft and composition of the work in space. Ideally, though, and usually, Antigone, Jr., is in a smaller room. TBA chose to scale the room down rather than hold it in a room that would typically seat 125 or 150.
Made-to-Measure on the other hand is eponymously made to fit the room size it’s performed in. So, in that case, the room was full and there were no more seats nor standing room.
LJ: Yes, scale is architectural. But not exclusively so. In Antigone, Jr., the movements / motions / gestures of each performer cycle through a whole range of scales and registers — from the minimalist / pedestrian to the exuberant / seductive. You spoke in the artist talk on Saturday about how, in 2007, when you started working on these pieces, emotion was taboo, and you wanted to bring emotion back to dance. What other taboos do you think this series responds to / breaks? What taboos do you think exist currently?
TH: Yes, scale is not exclusively architectural. But opera houses generally come in a certain size. The minimum size is, dare I say, large. Opera houses are not the size of black boxes and they produce certain size works. So what I am referring to is a history of theater and production already in place.
Taboos: look at Yvonne’s “No manifesto.” That is the rule book. So all of those things are taboo: emotion, seduction of the spectator, virtuosity, glamour, return of the star image, spectacle, etc….i.e., flouncy black dresses….all of that is a bit taboo in international contemporary dance at the moment. My work broke with the “No Manifesto.” Others too… I am saying maybe to the things she said no to…. But I am breaking the taboos now…. What I am doing is not the trend.
LJ: You wrote earlier about juxtaposing the Judson Church aesthetic, which emphasizes “the notion of rejecting spectacle, virtuosity, and theatricality,” with the Voguing tradition, which “uses constructions of gender, artificiality, and theatricality to create a fictional authenticity or ‘realness,’” and using the Voguing tradition to escape from post-modern aesthetic weighing down contemporary dance in the early 2000s. I wonder if you have any concerns, as I do, about putting these two aesthetics in conversation with one another. Each movement was experimental, and transgressive in its way, but the stakes were far different between them. I know of no one at Judson, for example, who was murdered for being a postmodern choreographer.
TH: I wouldn’t say “to escape” postmodern aesthetic. I began to use the theoretical lens of voguing together with the theoretical lens of early postmodern dance to move beyond conceptual dance strategies. But this was not an attempt to escape postmodern dance by situating myself in another tradition. I don’t represent voguing nor early postmodern dance. I don’t believe in the purity of aesthetics or that we can wholly project them on a subset of people. Voguing itself as a practice works strongly with appropriation from other cultural forms and references.
The point of the proposition is to situate ourselves in the imagination and rethink impossibilities. And yes, I am aware of the different kinds of stakes involved. I mentioned this at the talk. That is why I created the different sizes to speak about a different relation to power and who has access to the means of production and distribution. That is what I have to bring to it as an artist. There are for sure other positions and theoretical possibilities. I am mainly working from problematizing my own position. I wouldn’t therefore use the word “concerns.” I have questions and problematizations. The works werq to generate those.
LJ: I’m having trouble understanding how the different sized performances speak to the different relations of power. Can you explain this a little? I mean, isn’t it true that regardless of the size of the performance, you’re always only reaching only a certain subsection of art consumers (for lack of a better term)? In Portland, for example, at the Antigone, Jr., performance, the audience is made up of primarily white folks, most of them between the ages of 25 and 50. (And so very many of them in plaid shirts!) Do you intend the sizes of the performances to work on us, the audience, also by means of implied exclusion? Are we supposed to be aware of who is NOT there?
TH: I think one thing you have to be aware of is that I am working in the imagination. The need for different sizes corresponds to the migration to a dominate cultural context. It’s about knowing that within an “imaginative” proposition. Therefore, one performance (or size) is not enough to deal with the possible differences in power and access to means of distribution and production. There need to be contingencies, overlaps, alterities….
My relationship to the size of the audience is not related to race. I don’t feel the work is any more for white than black people or vice-versa. I am not interested in those limitations. All audiences are different. Portland will be different than in Tokyo than in Rio. Than in Stockholm or in New York.
LJ: What are you working on now? What questions interest you? After XL (the book production), what will we see from you next?
TH: I have already started a new long term research. I am looking at butoh dance through the theoretical lens of voguing. The first project, Used Abused and Hung Out to Dry was commissioned by MoMA and premiered there last February. The second project, a larger theater project for 8 dancers is coming in June. It will premiere at The Montpellier Danse Festival in France.
LJ: Are there particular questions you’re seeking answers to by looking at butoh dance through the theoretical lens of voguing?
TH: It’s too early in the research to speak about those now.
LJ: Let’s go back, very briefly, to the 20 looks series. What are your measures of success for these performances? That is, do you feel they sufficiently problematize your position? And that of the audience? Is there anything you feel unsatisfied with about this series? Anything you might do differently?
TH: There are things we do differently all the time. We are constantly working on the work and trying to make it better. As Martha Graham said, “…no artist is pleased….” She also said, “…it is not [the artist’s] business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions….”
LJ: That seems like a great sentiment to end on. Thanks so much for agreeing to chat with me.
TH: Thank you!!
Lacy M. Johnson is a writer and digital artist living in Houston, Texas, where she is the Director of Academic Initiatives at University of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. Her second memoir, THE OTHER SIDE, is forthcoming from Portland-based Tin House Books.