Show Dancer of the Year during FOG Triennale Milano Performative Arts, 2021 © Lorenza Daverio

Trajal Harrell talks about his metamorphosis from choreographer to dancer

October 8, 2021

Trajal Harrell, a world-famous performative dancer who took part in the programming of FOG Triennale Milano Performing Arts 2021 with his new work Dancer of the Year, tells us in an interview about his artistic evolution in recent years.

In June you came to Triennale Milano Teatro for the Italian premiere of your new solo, Dancer of the Year. This work is a response to being awarded the title of ‘dancer of the year’ by Tanz magazine in 2018, which has triggered a process of reflection on your personal journey. How has your dance language evolved throughout the years?

My dance language has primarily been influenced by the theoretical elements underpinning early postmodern dance, voguing, early modern dance, and butoh. The first two more concentrated between 1999-2012 and the latter beginning in 2013.  In the last five years, there has been a synthesis of stylistic elements that are articulated perhaps as bullet points in Dancer of the Year , created in 2019 and, in say, the latest work I made in 2020, The Koln Concert, as a definite dance style. For sure, I think runway movement as dance language is perhaps my lasting contribution to the history, a procedure, that ,truly and respectfully so, comes from the voguing dance tradition and ballroom scene.

Show Dancer of the Year during FOG Triennale Milano Performative Arts, 2021 © Lorenza Daverio

Workshop of Trajal Harrell during FOG Triennale Milano Performative Arts, 2021 © Lorenza Daverio
Workshop of Trajal Harrell during FOG Triennale Milano Performative Arts, 2021 © Lorenza Daverio

This reflection concerned also the value of dance as a practice. Did you find any answer?

The reflection is ongoing. I think for me it was less about the value of dance as a practice and more about the value of myself as a dancer inside of a practice. I think prior to this award and perhaps a deep research into the work of butoh founder, Kazuo Ohno, I thought of myself much more as a choreographer than a dancer. After making a work, The Return of La Argentina, in 2016 based on Ohno’s signature work Admiring La Argentina, something changed in my identity as a dancer and my physicality as a dancer. Soon after I would receive the award from Tanz Magazine. I have to see these events as connected. And I had to start seeing myself as a dancer. And perhaps, yes, that my dancing had value. It was difficult to make that transition. It’s still sometimes confusing and embarrassing, but I am more and more accepting myself as a dancer. I know that seems strange, but I think my own difficulty of acceptance is what gives my dancing gravitas, we might say. On the other hand, the difficulty is constantly being eschewed and this too gives the dancing a certain something perhaps I cannot put into words, but makes it interesting to watch.

Show Dancer of the Year during FOG Triennale Milano Performative Arts, 2021 © Lorenza Daverio
Show Dancer of the Year during FOG Triennale Milano Performative Arts, 2021 © Lorenza Daverio

Questions about cultural transmission return in this powerful solo. What kind of legacy is exposed and interrogated? 

Again, as I answered in the previous question- it’s a lot about my own personal legacy as dancer.

You incorporate a lot of dance history into the process of making your work. How do you translate that to the general public?

I hope the history is not didactic. I love history and it’s inspiring to me, but I want people to first have an emotional and aesthetic experience of being together in the theater. For me, it’s less about history and more about the present live moment we share together. So, of course, my research and aesthetic interests are indebted to history, but I don’t try and translate that to the audience. I try to translate specific human experience as if it’s on the precipice of “unwinding” before you.

Show Dancer of the Year during FOG Triennale Milano Performative Arts, 2021 © Lorenza Daverio

Trajal Harrell

Trajal Harrell came to contemporary dance world fame with theTwenty LooksorParis is Burning at The Judson Churchseries of works, which theoretically juxtaposed the voguing dance tradition with the early postmodern dance tradition. He is considered as one of the most important choreographers working today. His work has been presented at the Manchester International Festival, Centre National de la Danse Paris, Walker Arts Center, Schauspielhaus Bochum, and Munich Kammerspiele, among many others. He has also shown performance work in visual art contexts such as MoMA PS1, Performa Biennial, Ludwig Museum, Hammer Museum, Centre Pompidou. Most recently, he has become well-known for «Hoochie Koochie», the first performance exhibition of his work (1999-2016) held at the Barbican in 2017. His work will be shown next at The Sao Paulo Biennial, as well as a performance retrospective of his work at Moscow Garage in 2023. Currently, his company is based at the Schauspielhaus Zurich where he is one of the house directors.

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