Trajal Harrell: “My love is for the audience”

Czech Dance News visits Zurich Schauspielhaus for an in-depth interview with the current artistic director of their dance ensemble, the American dancer and choreographer Trajal Harrell. Born in Georgia (US), Harrell had his dancing education in renowned dance schools such as Trisha Brown School and Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. His very own idiosyncratic style derives from a wide range of influences, such as post-modern dance, butoh and voguing, as well as a wide range of pop-cultural phenomena. His most acclaimed work is the series Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, a part of which had the distinction of being the first dance commission of MoMA PS1. Harrell has performed all over the world and has received a wide selection of awards for his work. In 2018 he was named dancer of the year by Tanz Magazine.

Trajal Harrell in his Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem / Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (made-to-measure) . Photo: Ian Douglas.

Trajal Harrell in his Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem / Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (made-to-measure) . Photo: Ian Douglas.

Marina Srnka Author Marina Srnka

You have been the artistic director of Zurich Schauspielhaus Dance ensemble for 4 years now. It seems that you have found a home in Zurich?
Yes. I was an independent artist for many years. I started working in 1998, and this is the first time I’ve been a house director and had a chance to build a company. To be part of such a huge institution, an institution which is bigger than you are, it’s a really hard adjustment. I was making the decisions and here, there's so many people who have to weigh in on decisions. I can't say it was always easy for me, but I think it was really worth it because I was able to develop my work in a more sure direction. When you have these people to work with, you can plan a lot more in advance and also it takes a lot of the financial pressure off. Not that there aren’t financial pressures, but you know you can make the piece through the institution. So, it’s been great in that regard.

The contracts for the current group of artistic directors will end in 2024. I really have grown fond of Zurich. So, I’m thinking about that a lot. And in a way I think it’s a pity because I feel like I’m just getting started. It takes so long to really understand how to work in the institution, how to collaborate and work with all the colleagues that have different roles, but that are all supporting your work. It's been a big shift for me, and it has progressed my work.

So, do you think you will continue to search for other positions as an artistic director?
I don’t know yet, it’s too early. It was two weeks ago that we found out about this. The artistic directors contracts were not renewed therefore they themselves are not in a position to renew anyone’s contract. We do not know exactly what will happen to the dance ensemble. I hope the structure will stay in place even if I am not leading it.

But, of course, I’m open. At this stage of my career, there are certainly advantages of having the support of a large institution. Also, for the stability for dancers that work with me. But, I also long for period of independence. I’ve been working quite hard for a number of years and often it’s hard to take a break within the institution. So now I think I will take a break no matter what.

In the Mood for Frankie (2016). Photo: Max Colson.

Do you find that the public here in Switzerland have been open to your work?
When you perform you feel the cultural differences in audiences. Not only in the reception of the work (of course, there’s also that). But what I’m talking about is more in terms of the feeling between the performers and the audience. This is something that performers work with and are aware of. It’s not necessarily about national boundaries. You feel the cultural boundaries between, let’s say Brussels and Antwerp. The Flemish influence and the French influence.

But I can say I have had a very special relationship with the audience in Switzerland. The Swiss are not like Americans. They are not going to interact and engage immediately. Swiss are a bit more reserved, but because I’ve been staying with Schauspielhaus, I’ve had the chance to build an audience overtime. I came in 2019, and we did the The Köln Concert in September 2020 as my first piece here. It was very well received, but I think it was probably the next piece I did that really made my name in Zurich. When I presented Monkey off My Back or the Cat’s Meow in December of 2021, everyone was talking about it in the Zurich art scene. It became a big thing that made me visible. And then when I did the next piece, Deathbed, at the Kunsthalle Zurich, I could really feel that we belonged. Zurich was proud to have the work there, they really took ownership. People would stop me on the street and in the airport, people would be coming back more than one time. So even though the Swiss might be reserved in the beginning, once they get to know you, there’s a loyalty, and a real sense of belonging. 

I don't really want to leave Zurich, because I feel like I’ve finally found a home for my work. Of course, there are many places that I have an affinity with. Paris and France will always be near to my heart because France was the first place to give me support outside of the United States. And the same with Germany. And when you tour around the world, Brazil, Poland, Italy, Spain and the UK, as an artist you have to feel a connection to each audience that you perform with. But of course, when your repertoire is somewhere and you make a place your home, that is where you live, where you are cooking, where you rehearse, there’s a difference.

Trajal Harrell, Vienna 2013. Photo: Michael Hart.

When it comes to audiences, I’m sure our readers are curious about Czech Republic as well. You performed there in 2019 during the 4 + 4 Days in Motion festival. Was there something particular you experienced or brought back from Prague?
Well, I think the biggest thing for us was visiting the home country of one of my longest collaborators, Ondrej Vidlar. We started working in 2010, so he’s someone who’s really been loyal to my work and has stayed with me throughout the years. It was really a homecoming for Ondrej, and bringing the work there, a very special time. His family was there and he showed us around Prague. I remember it being a wonderful time and then just really being fascinated by this city and the restaurants. I had a great time there.

He was one of the first of my dancers to become a rehearsal director and even now he’s one of the rehearsal directors at the Schauspielhaus, where he also dances. So he’s very involved with me in the work and he preserves it, makes sure there’s maintenance around the work, whatever we need to do. He also helps with casting and training.

Monkey of My Back or The Cat’s Meow feels like a very personal work. “You’re in my house now”, you say, and we are put into this very personal world of your interests, your free associations, and your liberty to do as you please. It is also closely connected to the home you have found in Zurich. Looking back now, how does the piece make you feel? Does it still feel personal, or has it grown into something quite different?
Well, there’s a layer of creating it, and there’s a layer of me performing it, which are very different. When I came to create Monkey, I finally made something without a theme to try to luxuriate in the idea of a freedom to just make whatever I wanted to make. It was the first time I didn’t have to write a proposal explaining what I was going to do. I had the space, I had the funding, I could do what I want to do. And that was the luxury of being house director and especially the luxury of having the Schiffbau hall, our largest space, as my stage. And I thought, wow, what is this? I mean, why don’t you enjoy this luxury, it may never come around again. Just go for it, it’s okay. There were no co-producers, so I didn’t have to worry about it... So, I went for it.

First, I really tried to work with no theme. I just went into the studio to paint freely from whatever came to me. Of course, me being me, I realized I had to problematize this position of privilege. Everyone doesn’t have this opportunity as a choreographer: to have the Schiffbau hall, to have the resources of Zurich Schauspielhaus, to be able to not explain what you’re going to do. So, I began to question that. I had this dialogue back and forth within myself between trying to have this pure freedom and trying to understand what this freedom really means. Some of the things that came out were personal and some not.

Monkey Off My Back or the Cat’s Meow (2021). Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

On freedom in particular, on 4 July I read the Declaration of Independence. I was struck and moved by it, even though it is a problematic doctrine because of the limitations of who they are prescribing happiness and freedom for, and how they are talking about the First People in the United States of America, those who were already there. But nonetheless, the way these men write and speak about freedom is moving. And because I am an American, there was a part of me that understood this idea to stand up for these colonies and what they could be. I understand what they become, I am a product of that land.

In American culture, when you say you need to get a monkey of your back, it’s something that is bothering you. And the cat’s meow is something that seduces you. So, I am constantly moving back and forth between getting this monkey of my back and having this luxury seducing me.

Then there is the issue of performing it. It was a very difficult piece. I go through different modalities: a comedy routine at the beginning as Anna Wintour, then I come back, I walk, I watch, I stand, I do a little bit of movement, I sit, I go back, I do more movement, go back, I sit, then I do a very emotional dance, come back and then I do a very structural dance. I don’t have time to transition. I’m not just dancing, I talk. The temporality of those things happens very quickly. It’s very hard on my body, so it’s a very hard performance for me.

When we performed it for the first time, it took a lot out of me. For this year, recreating it was much easier than I thought, but coming back into the performing was much more difficult than I could have imagined. At the same time, it was also very satisfying to see that I could do it again.

The architecture of Shiffbau is very particular. It’s huge, and rectangular, with audience seated along the walls in a stadium. I’m curious if this influences the atmosphere, the sharing and the intimacy you are trying to create?
This stadium was my choice, I wanted to do a stadium fashion show. But the Schiffbau is not always set up that way. Most of the time it is set up with the audience on one side. I decided to do it this way with the runway in the middle because there is a different dynamic when the audience look each other in the face.

Monkey Off My Back or the Cat’s Meow (2021). Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

At the end I’m at the door, so I see audience come out. In this piece, I didn’t try to tie everything up in a nice package. As you said, it goes to many different places and I just allow them to exist. But people were moved by it. My work is always about togetherness. About being together with the audience, about how we can come into the now of being together in a room. And this happens between performers and the audience, but also in the big collective of 17 people on stage. The performers are very different, and they expressed themselves very differently, and I think there’s something about this that is very moving for people, they see themselves in this piece. This makes it work, people are able to imagine themselves inside of this community and being a part of it.

You talk about freedom of creation, concrete plan when you make the work and having no a priori theoretical frame. Do you think this kind of freedom will continue to bear fruit in the long run? Or is it just one time project experience?

I’ve been asked this question before, and I don’t really have an answer. Freedom is always relative. And freedom is an illusion, it depends on how we define it. One person’s freedom is another person’s prison. I think that this experience gave me something that I take with me. Will this particular structure become a modus that I will work on again? I don’t know if it’s necessary because I think it did produce something very special. And the result is also linked to the scale of the project. I don’t know if the process would produce a fruitful result if it was on a smaller scale. The big scale and the freedom that you feel in the performance within a large group is very particular. The sense of collective is also about the scale in which you feel an intimacy. I don’t have a desire to do it right now.  But, of course, as an artist I always leave the door open.

I was very curious about how you conceptualize your use of different styles in your work. In practice, how can this not be a fusion but actually separate elements?

Well, I'll say two things. One: it’s not fusion. It’s not about style. I use theoretical frameworks to set up to create my own style. Voguing is not a style, nor is postmodern dance. These are actually dance genres, you know,  more than just styles. I look at butoh through the theoretical lens of voguing and I’m looking at modern dance with the theoretical lens of butoh. Yes, there are these theoretical frameworks that I’m setting up. But the second thing I would say is that a great cook never gives away his or her recipes.

The House of Bernarda Alba (2022). Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

After what happened in Hannover recently, I want to ask you about your relationship to the press. Do you ever feel like smearing dog faeces on critics?
I know this critic because she’s written about my work. She’s never really written negatively, so I can’t pretend to know how he felt. But I just don’t give reviews this kind of value. I don’t read reviews generally, unless someone tells me that someone has something interesting to say about your work. My love is for the audience. That’s who I’m making the work for. It’s like you’re having a relationship and you’re letting other people tell you about your relationship.

Sometimes it’s good to listen, but you have to know when. When I was coming up in New York, I was very involved in the local scene, so I was able to really read the reviews on the New York Times with my own critical understanding of what they were writing. But when you begin to tour all around the world you cannot read every review. It’s impossible. Now that I’m immersed in a local scene again in Zurich, I can start to get an understanding of the criticism going on locally and what it means.

Wiebke Hüster is a part of the local scene, and I was advised to read what she had to write. But I’m very careful because I don’t want to be too moved by the good ones or the bad ones. I try to just keep a very even keel in regards to that, so I would never want to be so moved by a review that it caused me to make such an act out of my intent that was completely distanced from my integrity as a person, let alone as an artist. I’ve had really bad reviews, people said really horrible things about me, but I never thought that I would write them or call them. I wrote to one critic once, but that was to clear up a fact. They have to have their space to critique. There is no way to defend his actions.

Could you give some hints for future plans? Some new projects maybe? And also, is a return to the Czech Republic on the cards?
I would love to be invited to come to Czech Republic again. There are lots of new things and I have a new premiere April 1st at the Schauspielhaus that I’m working on now. And I will have another project there in November. I’ve been in this period of research on butoh and early modern dance since 2013, and also did a lot of research in Japan and India in relation to this. I said I would do it for ten years, but I think because of Covid I might extend it for two more years. After that I would like to really change my work. So, we’ll see what happens.

Témata článku

Trajal HarrellZurich Schauspielhaus