Monkey off My Back or the Cat's Meow – A Double-Edged Celebration of Artistic Freedom

Trajal Harrell, the 2018 Tanz magazine dancer of the year, has been the artistic director of Schauspielhaus Zürich Dance Ensemble since 2019. His largest dance piece to date has been running at the Schiffbau-Halle since 2021. Monkey off My Back or the Cat’s Meow involves 17 dancers and actors in the huge rectangular main room of the former wharf. The size of the group and the role played by the very special surroundings means the performance does not travel well. This February, Harrell and his ensemble showed their final scheduled performances of a remarkable piece.

Monkey off My Back or the Cat's Meow (Stephen Thompson). Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

Monkey off My Back or the Cat's Meow (Stephen Thompson). Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

Marina Srnka Author Marina Srnka

What happens when an artist gets free reign? Monkey off My Back or the Cat’s Meow explores the implications of privilege and freedom. Harrell has carte blanche to do as he pleases. No grant-applications, no justification or assurances of the importance of the project. Making the most of this luxurious liberty, he composes his work from “nothing”, creating exactly what his intuition and impulses dictate. He is finally free to shake the “Monkey” off his back, the “Cat” is free to meow. We listen carefully, eager to taste the fruits of his pure artistic autonomy.

“You’re in my house now”, Harrell states with a mischievous smile, addressing the audience sitting in four rows along both sides of the hall. This is his safe space, open for pure playfulness and fantasy. And Harrell does what he always does: merge dance and fashion. The humongous space of the Schiffbau fits Harrell like a glove. As it turns out, the old wharf was simply begging to be turned into a gigantic fashion runway. As an introduction, he takes on the role of Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of “Vogue”. She (he) tells us that she is an old friend of Trajal, and that he asked her to perform the initial dance. By accepting this offer, she becomes a “liver”. (Harrel here inserts a parenthesis explaining that he intends a person who lives, not the organ). As Harrell (or is he still in character as Anna Wintour?) says as the dance begins, “If you live, sometimes you have to dance”.

The dance starts with a procession of dancers walking up and down the square room. On the floor there is an outsized Mondrian style mat, with yellow, red and blue squares. The geometrical lines and shapes lead the mobility of dancers while they (cat)walk up and down, each swaying their hips and rolling their shoulders in their own way.

Monkey off My Back or the Cat's Meow (Nasheeka Nedsreal). Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

Harrell’s dancers are subverting the traditional canon of white femininity that is associated with the fashion industry. His “models” come in all shapes and sizes, all genders and colours. It is a beautiful palette of difference and individual potential. From my seat on the tribune, I can feel their auras shining through as they pass by on their (long) route down the hall. Authentic self-expression, joy, and sorrow intertwined. The American Declaration of Independence is distributed around the room; “a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people”, shouts an actor standing on a sofa reciting the document. The dancers gather on stage and join in a wild ceremony. Divided into pairs, they move at a distance from each other in continuous dancing to the intense rhythm of the music. In a shamanistic fusion, sorrows and dark desires converge in a collective groan. Here, the words of the male, slave-owning Founding Fathers become a pure anthem of freedom: artistic liberty, freedom of expression, and democratisation of the body.

More than a dance piece, this is a parade of expressiveness and a homage to an inclusive haute couture. Harrell investigates the importance of costumes on stage, the symbolism and narrative they transmit. Some of them are referring to famous fashion designers, many of them derive from Harrell’s imagination. At one point, Jeremy Nedd performs a dervish-like dance in a tight-fitting grey tulle dress that makes him seem at once graceful and snake-like. Later, there is a long sequence where each performer walks down the stage wearing strange fake animals over their shoulders. Exploring the rituals of identity standardisation, gender boundaries, mixing the styles and rituals of pop culture, the costumes and styles of walking, dancing, and proclaiming never cease to change over the course of the two-hour show.

In a piece that is about showing off without inhibition, the catwalk is the foundation. But the show also moves through postmodern dance, voguing and butoh. It is a curious collage that sometimes baffles, but never bores. In some ways, it is also a microcosm of dance history, making references while continuing to evolve and metamorphosize. As a melange of mimicry and mockery, fashion is turned on its head in a dancing runway show. Then suddenly, Butoh grotesques make the serious air of the catwalk “models” seem ridiculous. The abundance of costumes and poses, and the diverse playlist means even the most well-versed fashionista would struggle to catch all the references.

Monkey off My Back or the Cat's Meow (Jeremy Nedd). Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

Most of the time, soft beats of pop tunes surround the brisk walkers passing us like we’ve accidentally dropped in on a 90s rom-com. This is occasionally disrupted by remixes of the songs and the addition of experimental tones by Asma Maroof. Steve Reich’s “Come Out” adds a political layer to the work, as well as being a nod to the history of contemporary dance, as Reich was also the musical subject of Belgian Anna de Keersmaeker’s 1982 debut.

In some ways, the piece is a one-off event, bound to a specific time and space, and it seems to be in continuous evolution. Harrell spends half the evening seated in the audience, where his animated gesticulations and note-taking gives us the impression we’re attending the final rehearsal. The playful mockery and the mosaic of references are sometimes overwhelming, and the randomness and intentional incoherence can make it hard to follow. But this almost indulgent piece about free, meaningless play somehow resonates.

Monkey off My Back or The Cat’s Meow is a performance that claims not to say or mean anything in particular. But exactly for this reason, it becomes a homage to art as the free play of imagination and creation. Whilst not promising a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Harrell points out that the beauty of the rainbow is a treasure in its own right.


Written from the performance of the 8 February 2023 at Schauspielhaus Zürich, Zürich.


Monkey off My Back or the Cat's Meow
Staging, Choreography, Stage design, Costumes, Soundtrack: Trajal Harrell
Rehearsal director: Maria Ferreira Silva and Ondrej Vidlar
Co-Soundtrack: Asma Maroof
Co-Stage: Erik Flatmo
Light design: Stéfane Perraud
Dramaturgy: Laura Paetau and Tobias Staab
With actors and dancers: New Kyd, Alicia Aumüller, Frances Chiaverini, Sultan Çoban, Adel Sze-Farragne, Trajal Harrell, Tabita Johannes, Thibault Lac, Nasheeka Nedsreal, Perle Palombe, Karin Pfammatter, Maximilian Reichert, Lena Schwarz, Stephen Thompson, Songhay Toldon, Jeremy Nedd, Thomas Wodianka.


Témata článku

Monkey off My Back or the Cats MeowTrajal Harrell

Schauspielhaus Zürich