Conversation with Trajal Harrell

Well known in his native USA and often considered one of New York’s best kept secrets, Trajal Harrell’s idiosyncratic humorous and thoughtful blend of art history, Voguing, Butoh, Hoochie Koochie and modern dance is now at the Barbican. I talked to him there during the set-up.



Caen Amour, 2016, Photograph by Orpheas Emirzas (8)

Caen Amour, 2016, Photograph by Orpheas Emirzas (2008)

CE: You’ve explained to me that you’ll go with pretty much any pronunciation of your name, and that you have done so since high school. Do you think that this is part of what shapes the way that you create?

TH: Maybe, that’s an interesting idea. I grew up in a very small town and I think that my parents, who had 2 different religions, had an interesting effect on me. I had to learn from both of them, and realised that both [religions] could coexist. My father was Southern Baptist and my mother Jehovah’s Witness. I realised you could get parts of the good from each and maybe the name had an impact too.

CE: What’s your least favourite cliché when people interview you?

TH: [thinks] when people ask me to define what voguing is.

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CE: You’ve had 2 quite significant residences, MOMA and the Barbican. Can you talk about a couple of things you learned during the residences that you don’t think you would have learned on your own?

TH: I did the MOMA one first, so I brought some information in when I came to the Barbican. I am very private in my creation process, and I really don’t like people being in the studio watching me. I want the studio to be without stress, it is normally very calm and I want us to feel comfortable. Coming into MOMA I learned that I could do that process publicly. It was surprising to me to learn that I could actually get work done [in that environment]. I had to make the shift and see the whole thing as a studio, and to not fear [that it would prevent the creative process]. I think the performers really liked it too although I wouldn’t want to do it every day.

I like working with curators a lot. It’s very different to theatre. The curator is really involved with the project at all levels. In theory in theatre you have a lot more independence, but a lot of times when someone curates your work they maybe come to a rehearsal, but they’re not so involved in the production. I found I liked this, and I found you share a lot of the ideas.

I knew this before, but I think there is a way with my work I can build on the strength of an inner tension [between audience and performance] in galleries. In a show there are different points, points of inattention and attention, visibility and non-visibility. In a gallery, people see something for 30 seconds and then wander away. In the theatre, you would hold their attention. Of course, there is a sense of beholding something and there are theories of absorption, so I think I’ve bene able to work with the sense of people coming and going, personified in the main piece at the Barbican. This was another piece that came out of the creative work of moving between theatre and gallery space in MOMA, and is a created circle of influence. I think this experience has completely changed my work. I feel a lot freer. I love working with theatre but I love now that I don’t feel confined to it, and can work within different parameters. Scale, texture, space, environment, temporalities can all be played with.


After the Barbican residency, I then did the practice and I made a piece in public. It’s 8 minutes and one of the best things I’ve made. No-one would show it in a theatre. I discovered I don’t just want to make big pieces of an hour or two. It’s funny because at the beginning of your career you get these opportunities [for very short pieces]. You’ll see the little runway piece [from early in my career] is 3 minutes long. Who knows, maybe even the theatre might be affected. Who knows what will change and maybe the public are willing to see something on a different temporality.

In The Mood For Frankie,  2016, photograph by Laurent Philippe

In The Mood For Frankie, 2016, photograph by Laurent Philippe

CE: What is the difference in your practice now, compared to when you started?

TH: The difference now is I have much larger opportunities. The first thing I had was a residence at Snug Harbour Cultural Centre. A visual gallery gave me a chance before the theatres. But we are now at a different moment in terms of visual art, so I think this is also why I’m seeing more opportunities.

CE: My readers have asked if you think it’s more important to develop creatively on your own or collaboratively at an early stage.

TH: There are as many different kinds of love as there are creative artists. For me it was important to be independent. When I came to dance I wanted to do [it in] my own time. If I had devoted myself to someone else’s work it would have taken me years to get where I wanted. But I have this incredible appreciation of people dancing with me year after year. So, on one side, developing on my own was important. That said it [creative development] is always collaborative. My peers were incredibly instrumental in my development and without their input and feedback I would never have been the person I am today. My colleagues make the world of difference to me.


Twenty Looks or Paris is burning at the Judson Church (S), 2009, photograph by Jan Douglas

Twenty Looks or Paris is burning at the Judson Church (S), 2009, photograph by Jan Douglas

CE: Has your intent changed since the MOMA residency? I know that the Barbican event is kind of autobiographical, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not curating your own work with a slightly different objective.

TH: For sure we are in a very particular historical moment. For sure I think there are lots of questions about how dance will enter the museum and art history. They haven’t been answered yet. I do think my objectives have changed [as a result] because I think about my legacy. Like, what is going to happen to the work when I die.

My generation, we were struggling. Before us, in order for your work to live you had to build a big company, get a building, get funding and keep going. That model fell apart in the US. My generation knew we’d always have a kind of freelance company. Now we are [working] with museums and it is a different situation because of the idea that the museums might record our work. I am not someone who wants to build a huge company with a school. Those things are wonderful but not really my thing. So [the involvement of museums] has made me think differently about how I want the work to live, and do I want the work to live and what I want to last when I die.

CE: Do you want the work to live?

TH: Some of it!

Trajal Harrell is at the Barbican until August 13th