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Contemporary dance, voguing, Japanese butoh, ancient Greek theatre, performance art – the American choreographer Trajal Harrell conjures up his elegant, subtle vocabulary from the influence of a wide range of genres. He bases his major new trilogy Porca Miseria on the stories and battles of three very different, but equally strong women: Maggie from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the African-American choreographer and activist Katherine Dunham, and the Greek mythological Medea. Through them he explores issues of identity, gender, sexuality and power in a compelling way, breaking the boundaries between dance, theatre and the visual arts. The first and last parts can be seen in a theatre setting, while the middle part is as much art installation as performance piece.
part 2: The Deathbed of Katherine Dunham
The second part of Porca Miseria is inspired by a meeting between Harrell and African American choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) when she was on her deathbed in New York. Dunham was both a dance legend and a civil-rights activist who staged a hunger strike at age 82 in support of refugees. Part two of Porca Miseria is based on this encounter and all the questions he didn’t get to ask her. Harrell explores the boundaries between dance, theatre and visual arts – it’s equal parts installation and performance, and the audience is free to move around the space.
‘The appropriation of fashion language into dance comes from the voguing dance tradition. The runway as my signature and as an architectural space within the dance composition continues to guide my formal process and hopefully will contain a lasting contribution to dance and art history.’ – Trajal Harrell
The American choreographer and dancer Trajal Harrell (1973) is one of the most important choreographers of his generation. He rose to fame thanks to a series of works in which he combined a speculative view of history and canon with the idiom of post-modern dance, augmented with multiple elements from contemporary pop culture. For instance, he immersed himself in postmodern dance history and the voguing ballroom scene, the now renown dance style reframing the chic of the early 1980s fashion world that emerged among gays and transsexuals especially of African-American and Latino heritage.
Harrell graduated in American Studies at Yale University and received his training at several renowned dance institutes, including the Trisha Brown School, the Centre National de la Danse in Paris, City College of San Francisco and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York. His first full evening programme premiered in 2004 at New York’s Danspace. Four years later, Time Out New York named Quartet for the End of Time (set to music by Olivier Messiaen) the best dance production of 2008.
His most conspicuous work was the eight-part performance series Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church. Judson Church was where a group of dance pioneers in the 1960s (Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton and many others) developed the concepts of postmodern dance. The series is designed as an encounter between this early postmodern dance and voguing. Harrell created seven episodes of varying lengths plus a publication. The first part premiered in 2009 at the New Museum in New York and was heralded as one of that year’s best works. One of the last in the series, Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure) / Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M), was performed at the 2014 Holland Festival at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.
In 2016 Harrell completed an Annenberg Residency at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art in New York), where he focused on the work of the Japanese founder of Butoh dance, Tatsumi Hijikata. He created works including Used Abused and Hung Out to Dry (MoMA, 2013), The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai (2015), The Return of La Argentina (2015), In The Mood for Frankie (MoMA, 2016), Caen Amour (Avignon Festival, 2016), Juliet & Romeo (Münchner Kammerspiele, 2017), Morning in Byzantium (Münchner Kammerspiele, 2018), and Séance de Travail (Schauspielhaus Bochum, 2019). He also created The Return of The Modern Dance for the Swedish Cullberg Ballet, which was staged at the 2015 Holland Festival.
In 2018, Harrell was named ‘Dancer of the Year’ by the renowned German magazine Tanz. He subsequently created the introspective performance entitled Dancer of the Year in which he reflects on what winning this kind of award means and what exactly his role is as a dancer and a choreographer working on the intersection between various styles and cultures. The Porca Miseria trilogy (2020) is his most recent work.
- Sara Jansen
- Trajal Harrell, Titilayo Adebayo, Helen Boyd Auerbach, Frances Chiaverini, Rob Fordeyn, Challenge Gumbodete, Christopher Matthews, Nasheeka Nedsreal, Tiran Normanson, Perle Palombe, Songhay Toldon, Ondrej Vidlar
- direction, choreography, costumes, co-set design, sound
- Trajal Harrell
- co-set design
- Erik Flatmo
- Stéfane Perraud
- Schauspielhaus Zürich
- commissioned by
- Manchester International Festival, Schauspielhaus Zürich, ONASSIS STEGI, Kampnagel, Holland Festival, the Barbican and Dance Umbrella, NYU Skirball, Berliner Festspiele and The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi