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Trajal Harrell and the Art of Conscientious Hosting

By Debra Levine

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai. Where? Julius’! West Village, corner of Waverly and 10th. Whaaaat? You’ve never been to Julius’?1 Gurl! (Then pay close attention to the footnotes in this essay—even closer still if you are in the minority that fantasizes that “real” history is derived from “facts.”) Order the burger when you get there; they’re famous far and wide. And six dollars! In 2016! With those prices it’s crazy that Julius’ can turn a profit. But the owners don’t seem to care. Just show up with a desire to “destroy everything with monstrous energy,” and with a bit of change in your pocket.2 Because anything can happen at Julius’, the oldest gay bar in New York City, where Bud, Bud Lites, and Rolling Rocks are $3, and “well drinks”—Long Island Ice Teas, Sex on the Beach, and Lemon Drop Shots—are $5 all day, every day. And did I mention that the jukebox has a playlist to haunt you?

Maybe that’s why Dominique Bagouet (1951–1992), the embodiment of late 20th-century French Nouvelle Danse, and Tatsumi Hijikata (1928–1986), founder of Butoh, both arrived there (separately) one fateful night. Trajal Harrell, the tall blond dancer from Brussels, reminds us of that encounter about 20 minutes into The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai. Probably after a bit of liquid lubrication, neither could refuse the challenge to make a dance in the style of the other. Especially with the caveat that the dance had to be about love (yes, in 2016, that is especially corny) and set to the music from that jukebox (the constraint).

Of course, there is no book or document that records this meeting, so please don’t decamp to the footnotes. You can check Hijikata’s passport records. Tatsumi Hijikata never left Japan; he died in ’86. (So many died in ’86. Sad. That was the year that galvanized AIDS activism: Silence = Death.) Also, if you’ve seen Trajal Harrell perform before, you know he is neither tall, nor Belgian nor white. But like his earlier work, Twenty Looks: Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, Harrell’s art is the art of hosting. He creates opportunities for others to step in and out of his position. As an artist who hosts artists, he inserts himself into a lineage of diva artist/impresarios who precede him, most notably Ellen Stewart, the “La Mama” of the legendary off-off-Broadway theater.

Walk east when you leave Julius’ in the wee morning hours after that raucous and long night. Breathe in the New York dawn. La Mama Etc. is just a few steps across town on 4th Street, and since its founding in 1961 the venue has hosted the most significant avant-garde performance makers of the late 20th century. Stewart began her career uptown, at Saks Fifth Avenue in fashion design, but she quit the industry because she found its systemic racism intolerable. She re-directed her energies into making a home for new arts—performance, theater, and dance. Contemporary institutions like the Walker would be unthinkable without Stewart; for 50 years she fought to sustain La Mama as a touchstone for artists worldwide.

Places like La Mama are precarious, their continued existence is never a given. In 1961, art venues were even more under-appreciated, for economists had not yet connected them to the sustenance of a thriving urban economy. Twice in La Mama’s early years Stewart was arrested for “putting on theater without a license.”3 While performance can be made anywhere, even a bar and with just a jukebox, it only becomes memorable and historical, known and influential, when it is situated adjacent to other works of similar ambition and foresight. The venue serves as shorthand for the conversations and tensions sparked by thinking of disparate works together. New and radical art depends on that conscientious hosting that opens the new in art to even newer and different aesthetic and intellectual challenges. Harrell ghosts Stewart, imagining what history cannot think. And now, like Stewart, he’s famous for it.

There have always been impresarios, divas of the arts, who made the right introductions and cultivated the radical and new. They choreograph and cross-pollinate, and unlike curators, they ignore the possible. Instead, they transgress linguistic and geographical borders to facilitate connections. Radical newness survives because of the ministrations of those seers and doers. The Japanese have a term for the way in which the avant-garde artist survives in their care—gyaku-yunyu. It means, “go out and come back.” Returning to the place that provided the material and inspiration for the new art form, the artist becomes defamiliarized and welcomed as if s/he were a foreigner. While the artist’s work most often is deeply connected to seismic political and cultural shifts tied to local and national concerns, before it travels and encounters difference, what is radical in the work is hardly legible—it comes too early and it is held too close. Avant-garde. Both the work and its maker need distance and contact with others similarly working and aspiring. The artwork and artist both temper as they circulate. Both gain a name and legitimacy when they pass along, through and to others, and then return. The work has hardened and taken on more dimensions—and the artist’s legitimacy has been transformed.

That process is dear. Is money an obstacle? Absolutely. But not entirely. A dance can be made in a bar where the burgers cost only six dollars and getting drunk is cheap. (And since this is the moment in the essay where there is a semblance of truth-telling, Hijikata and Bagouet really collaborated on only one dance, not two.) The legend of Ellen Stewart is that she began La Mama in a basement on East 9th Street rented for $50 a month. But she had to circle around the problem of race; LaMama was established only after Stewart left New York and traveled through Tangiers after quitting Saks. While traveling, she was visited by a ghost. Stewart’s surrogate father, a Jewish immigrant from the Lower East Side, Papa Diamond, spoke to her and said, “You go back and get a pushcart, and I’m going to push it with you, and you’re going to go anywhere you want.”

Performances and performers become amplified by these legends. They become even larger as they attuned themselves to hauntings and grow stronger through contact with radical difference. Yet another diva, Condé Nast creative director Anna Wintour affirmed this when she tells her “girls,” (the editors of Vogue Italy, Vogue France, and US Vogue), “We need more, we deserve more, we can get more.”5 More is always solicited and needed. More money, more contact. Above all, more capacity to image beyond the constraints of history.

While watching The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, we don’t forget that Hijikata and Bagouet existed in dissonant spaces and overlapping times. History’s methodology is embedded in us, and as audience members we reproduce those epistemological separations. But entertaining the historically impossible allows us to entertain a different set of questions. Now we wonder how artists—Hijika, Bagouet, Stewart, Wintour, Harrell—become enmeshed in a vast collective network? Who haunts whom? Who shares similar experiences of exclusion? Hijikata and Bagouet have become so tied to their respective national cultures and countries’ histories that more divas that host the impossible encounter become necessary. The divas become legends themselves by manufacturing the legendary and amplifying transnational circuits of contact. That is how the spirit of “avant” lives, choreographing different circuits and contacts in time and space. The legendary and avant-garde become intertwined; the voguing of Harlem ballroom culture, which Harrell draws upon for his manifestation of social critique and desire in forms of performance, offers the paradigmatic concepts of a “house” (the cultural site of community and voluntary kinship that creates a culture and critique of social oppression) and “legendary face.” What is authentic and real is visible and performed in the legendary face of the diva; as the host of the house she sees, facilitates, and vogues the break where the new might emerge.

As performance, voguing is also a competition. It tests aesthetic virtuosity and perspicacity. The competition, a communal event, generates a controlled but ecstatic joy. So loosen up! Grab a drink before you enter the theater. Say hello to Harrell as you make your way to your seat. Go with the flow, pay attention to the displacements, substitutions, misleading recountings, and temporal and geographical impossibilities. As Harrell vogues Hijikata and Bagouet, he stages a competition with history and its methods: intertwining narratives, narrative forms, and cultural movements and hauntings. The terms of the avant-gardes that precede Harrell are contested in order to discover a “realness” (voguing) and “authenticity” (Judson postmodern). Follow the false and the true Trajals who offer the “scoop” and the “corrections.” Together they might lead you to experience the radical beating heart of what is faked in front of your eyes. The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai asks you to dance that speculation hosted through Harrell and his dancers.

“In Butoh,” Hijikata said, “we shake hands with the dead who send us encouragement from beyond the body… Something can be born, can appear, living and dying at the same moment.”6 In turning to art we hope that theatrical artifice discovers a “realness” that accredited methods of historical scholarship cannot yet entertain. So much of the time we are admonished to rely on good common sense and dismiss what might have been or what never came to pass. Whatever you do, don’t ruminate! But rumination is generative territory for Harrell—and for Ellen Stewart before him. What could have been made had the very real barriers to collaborative contact like race and gender, time and geographic location, class, sexuality and physical ability be removed? But more importantly, what can a contemporary artist make now, using the break of historical impossibility?

The question is nuanced. What he makes—and what you see—is not the past Harrell discovers in the archives. The archive arrives last, not first. First the periperformatives are worked and worked through: the gossip, the influences, the sexual and social contacts—all detritus that is “used, abused and hung out to dry,” diminished, lost, and whitewashed when an artist gets taken up and historicized via the efforts of preservation.

It’s tricky. The artist becomes known and “legendary” when her or his name becomes soldered to a body of documented work. The tightening of name, legend, and body of work is a prison; the discursive noose evacuates the radical newness that generated the delight and shock of the incomprehensible. Those affects are drained even more when many of the living ferociously guard the memory. For instance, take Dominique Bagouet. He is still so beloved; just catch that You Tube video of the flash mob that gathered in the place du Palais Royal in Paris in 2012 to dance an impassive, joyous, and poignant tribute to Bagouet’s Jours Étranges/Strange Days.

I too find joy and comfort in the nostalgia. But The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai uses the device of the encounter to avert fully trafficking in reverence. Fictionalizing an encounter in a gritty and vibrant watering hole like Julius’ isn’t revisionist history. Aesthetically, Harrell still hangs with the postmodernists. He is far too canny to merely reproduce the colorful settings used most often as a shorthand to add a rough or Dionysian quality to the artist’s character. But he is an inconstant friend (and that’s a good thing). He breaks with given historical doctrine to “say maybe”–maybe to a dramatic device, maybe to narrative. The “maybe” allows him to remain in contact with those elements that are Butoh’s carefully wrought break with postmodernism. In Harrell’s work, form does not erase or supersede politics—just as Julius’ becomes shorthand to annex a history of hard won sexual liberation that cannot be divorced from either Hijikata’s or Bagouet’s histories but a device that doesn’t fully align them either.

Refusing the task of re-performance, Harrell insists that there must be an analogous site where the historical can play itself out differently and ask different questions. The chance encounter offers the opportunity for that speculation. Can what was not danced then become radical now? Can we recognize that, as in The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, invention is never solo or independent, even when points of contact cannot be traced? If dance history is composed of stories that bury artists in singular coffins of describable technique and form, and assigning relations between the choreographer’s body of work and her or his proper name, Harrell’s task is to choreograph away from that process of reduction.

Instead, Harrell works with the energy that is released at the precise moment when history calcifies names like Bagouet and Hijikata and solders them onto genres like Nouvelle Danse or Butoh. That energetic excess is the material for speculation that Harrell dances. When Bagouet and Hijikata’s objects have been mummified in acid-free paper and the deterioring 1/2-inch Beta videotape masters of their dances diligently digitized for best possible archival preservation, speculation frees him to investigate the radical impulse that still circulates around the half-life of these objects and stories. And it also gives rise to the question of irreverence for who other than the artist—Hijikata, Bagouet, Stewart, Harrell—situates her- or himself in a genealogy in order to liberate those who came before him from the careful ministrations of preservationists?

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai offers a methodology and a choreography to free and incarnate that radical impulse. It has to happen elsewhere, in the chance meetings to which we must remain open. Sometime, like at Julius’, artists meet cute. And other times, they step out solo, from another’s body. When Bagouet emerges in Trajal Harrell’s work, he bodies forth in a moment, a hand. A dancer stands at an angle and looks down at his right lower arm. It extends and the wrist flexes up. The movement moves the entire arm, not the other way around. The dancer looks at the movement; but it happened as if it was independent of the brain’s cognitive command center. The movement evokes self-reflexive wonder in the dancer. And we who watch become the dancer’s surrogates, also struck with a similar reverence. Yes, that! We mummer. Bagouet is ignited. Trajal shakes his hand!

Then, the other arm rises to clasp the first. We can recognize it as postmodernism, but it is the job of dance historians to segregate, to distinguish one choreographer from another, and then to group them in categories and subcategories. In dance history, Bagouet is further marginalized under the subcategory of “neobaroque.” But Bagouet, like Hijikata, was awesomely prolific; like Hijikata, he expended a monstrous energy. We can’t see that similarity until Trajal facilitates a meeting. Death isn’t insurmountable; nor is it transcendent. What can be imagined with it is the expansion and re-figuration of presence that the methods of history occlude.

Can we, now, together as artists and audience, reimagine genre, not as a final pronouncement but more as a referent to mark the fact of the thinking and making of something monstrous at a point in time in history? Can we transgress the confines of genre as a historical category to recognize its élan vital, the combustive energy that allows what is remarkable, new and radical to appear? In the fictional encounter, Harrell touches upon the feeling or impulse that prefigures how the radical opens us up to new worlds right before it consolidates and becomes so many other things—stories, names, commodities. But art’s strange appearance in the world, at least for Bagouet and Hijiaka, was an event that evokes a constellation of occurrences. The radical that was forgotten is its excess evoked in Harrell’s choreography; a meeting of Bagouet and Hijikata and Stewart and Harrell and us—and the life, work, spirit, dancers, movement, venues and the then and the now of time. Eat your burger. Listen to Nicki Minaj and Beth Ditto on the jukebox. More divas. More dance. Ecstatic life. Drink.


Debra Levine is an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance at NYU Abu Dhabi and is affiliated with The Hemispheric Institute for Politics and Performance and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Department of Undergraduate Drama. Her work explores the intersection between performance, politics, and new media/digital humanities through the lens of feminist and queer theory, disability studies, and visual studies. Levine has written on Jérôme Bel’s collaboration with Theater Hora of Disabled Theater for Studia Dramatica, as well as contributed articles to GLQ, Women & Performance, e-misférica, Theatre Research International, and The Disability Studies Quarterly. She also has chapters in two new books, Reading Contemporary Performance: Theatricality Across Genres (2016) and Burning Down the House: Downtown Film, Video and TV Culture: 1975–2001 (2015).


Notes
1 Opened in 1840 and still a popular watering hole today, Julius’ is located in the West Village of Manhattan at 10th Street and Waverly Place. According to its website, it was first a grocery store. In 1864 it became a bar and subsequently was a speakeasy during Prohibition, “frequented by many of the jazz and literary legends of the era.” In the 1950s it served a primarily gay clientele; the present owners claim that “it surely is the oldest gay bar in the city and the oldest bar in the Village.” Drawing from the tactics of the civil rights movement, Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman, in their comprehensive history, Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-century America, tell of the “sip in” staged at the bar on April 26, 1966 that challenged the New York State Liquor Authority’s regulation that prohibited bars and restaurants from serving homosexuals. The demonstration prompted an investigation of the discriminatory practice by New York City’s Human Rights Commission.
2 The phrase was taken from a talk given by Okamoto Taro upon his return from Manchuria in 1948. The exhortation, included in Lizzie Slater’s unpublished manuscript “Investigations into Ankoku Butoh,” (1985) reads: “destroy everything with monstrous energy like Picasso’s in order to reconstruct the Japanese art world”
3The Villager, Volume 76, Number 24, November 1–7, 2006.
4 Ibid.
5The Ghost of Montpellier meets the Samurai (2015).
6 Tatsumi Hijikata, “To My Comrade,” from the program notes of Niwa by Tatsu Nakajima, trans. Natsu Nakajima and Lizzie Slater (1985) quoted in Bonnie Sue Stein’s “Butoh: “Twenty Years Ago We Were Crazy, Dirty, and Mad,” in Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance Studies Reader, Eds. Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Trajal Harrell