Silence, a kind of scenographic silence: low white plinths waiting for bodies to step on, painted flats waiting for a context, a strip of dance flooring, rows of seats, and benches pressed against the bare walls. On the sides, titles and brief contextualising notes. Not long after, two bodies run down the stairs and rhythmic music echoes, punches through the space from an isolated speaker. This is Ghost Trio, the performance that starts the exhibition on the day I encounter it. What follows is an occupation of the gallery space with a scheduled rota of performances, most of which are only ten minutes long. You ease into the rhythm of this occasional spectating, navigating your distance to the bodies in front of you vis-à-vis your own body in this space – leaning on a wall, in a corner, shuffling behind a chair, sitting on the floor.
It is quite something, walking into the Barbican’s bare Art Gallery in between performances for Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie. You notice the awkward shift of visitors as they wait to become an audience; gallery attendants moving out of the way, ready for a performance to start. The day I see Hoochie Koochie, there’s a film crew documenting, and a fair amount of kit is slowly circling the space. It’s an exhibition that is still wearing itself in.
Hoochie Koochie is one of the first live dance exhibitions the Barbican has hosted. It is not strictly a performance retrospective, although it features mostly works from across Harrell’s recent practice. Unlike similar events, such as Siobhan Davies’ Table of Contents at the ICA in 2014, Hoochie Koochie is neither a dance intervention into a gallery space, nor is it an exploration of dance documentation or re-enactment. It is, for the most part, a choreographic experiment: one in which a range of performances, some in fragments and some in their full iteration, formulate a body of work by context and association. There’s a meta-dance slowly taking shape over time, as one work feeds into the next. There’s a constant contextualisation that occurs in the formalism of the Brutalist gallery space, and a past tense that lingers behind, as if watching a dance piece here means it has already passed, despite its liveness.
Harell comes to the UK as the choreographer behind this exhibition with an impressive CV: his best-known performance, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church was the first commission for MOMA’s PS1, and only came to the UK in 2015 for Bristol’s In Between Time Festival. Harrell recently completed a two year residency at MOMA, turning his attention to the founder of Japanese Butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata, and is a Guggenheim and The Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellow, and one of the few US-born choreographers of color to explicitly tackle both race and queerness in his work. Harrell’s work strikes me as firmly emerging out of American culture; whilst his approach to choreography is grounded in an interrogation of dance concepts as much as the concept of dance, his interest resides in the vernacular, from voguing to the hoochie koochie, a term encompassing different types of belly-dancing popularised in the late 19th century in Chicago, Philadelphia and beyond.
Speaking about the dances in his choreographer’s note to his piece Caen Amour, Harrell notes discriminatory practices and public policies as a way of giving agency to these marginal forms of dance outside of the history books – works that normally hide under rubrics like ‘cultural performance’. ‘Here in front of many daddies, Casanovas, Marlboro men, peeping toms, pimps, pip squeaks, sharks, playboys, thugs, salamis, good ‘ole boys, meatloafers and whistlers we might find some agency in imagining minimal yet probable possibilities and forms of creative resistance between the cracks of history.’ Modern dance, he adds, has its beginnings as much as in these spaces as in the empire of Diaghilev or later, the studios of Yvonne Rainer or Trisha Brown.
Caen Amour is the centrepiece of the exhibition, the longest-running, and one that occupies a central place both in his choreographic oeuvre and in the space itself. It is a shifting piece, referencing the hoochie koochie shows as much as the modernism of Loie Fuller and the work of Hijikata. The formal ambiguity is a bold conceptual proposition. The piece begins with the assertion of history as always part fictional and in doing so, treads the line between re-enactment and stylisation. The accompanying text, which forms part of the piece, points to the voyeuristic, sexist and racist implications of encountering the hoochie koochie, and the choreographer partially plays with this by drawing on a gender diverse cast for the performance.
This is Harrell’s approach: a deliberate toying with dance concepts and histories, an overlap with modes of movement that have existed outside of those narratives, and in turn, an interplay on visibility – of race, class, gender, sexuality or ability. His references span different realms of performance, from fashion to gender, and cross cultural contexts, from Japan to Egypt. It’s a deliberate redrawing of cultural networks that is interested in marking and then collapsing paradigms, almost to mould them into each other: voguing and postmodern dance, peep shows and catwalks; less about the identity politics embedded within these, and more about what a possible meeting point might offer to dance.
Hoochie Koochie is in essence a compositional endeavour, one in which pieces become sequences of movements, and juxtaposition of their overriding means. The tone is varied: Ghost Trio proposes a late night New York City bar encounter between French Nouveau Danse choreographer Dominique Bagouet and Hijikata, whereas Caen Amour takes a more concentrated approach to bringing together cultural performances with explorations of gender, race and sexuality woven into these historical moments, but extracted from their specific points of emergence. It’s art that feels light in its energetic, gestural qualities of movement, but also chameleonic, shifting language with a step, an arm raise or a gaze; at times, it feels as glitzy as a Comme des Garcons catwalk show and at others, uncomfortably yet gently confrontational.
Harrell’s work is so gestural and stylised, that it unfolds in tension with the space, with own strict formalities, its abstraction. In Creon Solo, an extract from a larger body of work that draws on Ancient Greek Theatre, there’s a constant play on the past as a space of imagination and agency, as the body moves between material, sculpture and presence. In The Untitled Still Life Collection, Harrell’s collaboration with artist Sarah Sze, body and material collide, toying with the notion of conversation: blue threads wrapped around a body, slow movements to contort, shift and continue. Despite the difference in tone, qualities and conceptual dimensions of the works, there’s a strange equivalence that comes to pass when they are all collated together in the space, a formalism that sits uncomfortably with the propositions of the pieces.
Harrell is keenly interested in articulating seemingly impossible intersections, by means of dance’s different vocabularies and strategies. He navigates music the way he does movement, and the soundscape to the exhibition, accompanying individual pieces, tells its own tale too, from pop to baroque.
It’s impossible to divorce the formal remit of the exhibition with the work’s concern for form and collapsing the contexts which delineate it. There is much that is unresolved here: the ways queerness is occasionally assimilated into the aesthetics which it resists, or the ways in which difference is erased by an overt interest in moving beyond specificity; at the same time, it’s mesmerising work – and the choreography of the exhibition itself adds another layer of complexity to a powerful and deliberate formal ambiguity.
Hoochie Koochie was on at the Barbican Art Gallery. Click here for more details.