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Wall Dance (c) Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie

9 August 2017 Will Rathbone

Trajal Harrell is an American choreographer whose influences are vast and reach across time, medium and place. His first ever performance exhibition, Hoochie Koochie takes work spanning the last 18 years of his career, including his two-year residency at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and presents them at various times throughout the Barbican Centre’s third-floor exhibition space. It is playful, mesmerising, full of meaning and heavily stylised. It is also one of the most unusual and inspiring exhibitions of 2017 so far.

Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie is a living, breathing exhibition. As you step through the door and join a small queue to collect your tickets, there are already small crowds gathered in different locations throughout the gallery. A solo performance is underway opposite and slightly to the left of the ticket booth. The performer, Rob Fordeyn, stands on a small plinth wearing a single piece of thin material that runs continuously round him like a coiled snake. He makes small movements, constantly twisting his arms and slowly writhing and turning. At times he beckons with his hands, at times he appears unaware of anyone. The soundtrack is a mixture of minimalism, smooth RnB and house music.

The above work, Creon’s Solo, fuses the hoochie koochie style from the exhibition’s title with a more formalised series of jazz/modern movements. Hoochie koochie, an exotic, belly-dance movement which became hugely popular in late nineteenth-century New York, is a form that, Harrell posits, bridged the gap between art and entertainment that existed in Europe and the US at the time.


Creon's Solo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

As the small crowd of newcomers gathering round the solo grows, louder music - and a larger, steadily growing crowd - attract the attention. One of the main works, In the Mood for Frankie, is about to begin. A catwalk forms the stage, with the audience sitting either side of the long stretch, and more standing behind them craning to see. Three dancers - Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac and Harrell himself - perform up and down the space. The ‘catwalk’ is in fact a series of glowing marble-effect plinths, with benches at either end for costume and props and running water between two plinths on the far left. The piece is inspired by the idea of the ‘muse’, and it’s varying influences encompass Japanese butoh performer Yoko Ashikawa, singer Sade, fashion designer and founder of label Comme de Garcons Rei Kawakubo and more. The soundtrack is just as varied, featuring a blend of free jazz, neo-soul, and more percussive, rhythmic sounds. The performers trade poses, interact, take solos, press clothes against themselves, half-smile, grimace, waltz - myriad styles undertaken with superb composure and attention to detail. It is fascinating to watch.

Harrell’s dominant work - Twenty Looks OR Paris is Burning at the Judson Church - is performed in segments throughout the day. The exhibition’s format is such that different works are performed variously from 2 till 9pm, with the audience free to roam throughout and dip in and out of pieces. Twenty Looks epitomises Harrell’s ouvre: in it, he imagines what would happen were the voguing ballroom scene of late 1960s Harlem to have crossed with seminal New York dance school Judson Dance Church (for anyone looking for further context, the seminal film Paris is Burning is a brilliant introduction to the voguing ball scene - an innovative, inclusive underground movement where people met to compete in dance/performance balls between different ‘houses’). The result is a stylised set of poses, slowed down and carefully performed. They challenge the viewer as well as the medium, and they demand attention. In an interview, Harrell describes them as “kind of a fuck-you piece. I had gone to my first fashion show and my first voguing ball and I was floored by both of them. I was making fun and I thought, ‘well, what if you made voguing minimal?’ What if you did minimalist voguing, because voguing was so flamboyant and extravagant?’” This fusion of contrasting influences, challenging of accepted notions and sense of fun makes for a potent and powerful performance style.


Wall Dance © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Harrell blurs the boundaries between more formal modern or postmodern dance, work considered to be less ‘artistic’ - vogueing, hoochie koochie - and other mediums such as Japanese dance/theatre hybrid butoh and high-end fashion. The deep cultural knowledge, wide influences and fierce intelligence behind Harrell’s theory can be overwhelming, however the sheer joy, skill and style of his work overrides any theoretical brow-furrowing. Showpony Begins sees two rows of fourteen chairs facing a vinyl-covered catwalk. As the audience take their seats, a performer moves from one lap to the next. He gently interacts with everyone - and the performance takes on new meaning with each individual reaction. A beautiful moment occurs when one woman instinctively rests her head on the performer’s shoulder. He reacts in turn, and places a hand gently on her leg. She places her hand on his, then his follows hers - and in turn, much like a game played by children - they are entwined. It is funny, personal, public and wonderful. The piece is reminiscent of lap-dancing, but rescues the form from it’s sleazy connotations and presents it as a series of personal encounters.


Showpony © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

The finale is a joyful performance through the entire space - with a pulsing, electronic soundtrack - that is exhilarating to witness. There is so much here, both in terms of different performances and historical and artistic context. It’s definitely worth seeing before it ends this weekend, and tickets are still available.

Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie runs at the Barbican Centre until August 13. Tickets are £12.50.
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