From its beginnings in a revolt against Victorian staidness, early modern dance dreamed of an exotic feminized Other. Fragments of misunderstood costumes and gestures were appropriated and recombined in order to reject the corseted restrictions of the present in favour of a fleshy, seductive, imaginary past. Ruth St Denis was one of the American dancers to establish this paradigm in the early 1900s through a career based on Orientialist fantasies. Reputedly stimulated by her rapture after seeing an advert for Egyptian Deities cigarettes, she danced for her audiences many images of the East, despite coming from New Jersey.
Billed as ‘a performance exhibition’, Trajal Harrell’s ‘Hoochie Koochie’ explicitly conjures this phantasmatic feminine genealogy, imagining how, through choreography, our bodies may carry the traces of those who danced before us. The show, which includes some 14 works, spanning 1999 to the present, operates as a theatrical retrospective with a changing schedule of events for the visitor. A few works are over an hour long and only shown once per day, while others are short excerpts, lasting ten minutes and repeated several times. It’s difficult to catch everything in one visit but shared choreographic tactics emerge: a defiant catwalk stride punctuated with emphatic poses, a looseness of the wrists and neck in an undulating queer femme stylization, facial contortions between a grotesque grimace and an emotive howl, a return of the audience’s gaze in a heightened awareness of the seductive potential of bodies on display.
Ostensibly, the pieces arise from a series of ‘what if’ questions: what if Vogue dancers from the ballrooms of Harlem had danced with the Judson Church experimentalists in the 1960s? Or had duetted with the Japanese originators of butoh? These questions are posed through the titles of the work or through the wall texts, and they act as a departure point for fantastical musings. Eschewing attempts at faithful reconstruction, Harrell instead imagines how to tell the stories of dance history differently, through anachronistic cross-pollinations. Wall Dance, a fragment from Antigone Jr (2011), combines walking as simple functional action and walking in a heightened, spectacular way – as in a ball. The wall text suggests a nod to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982), itself an inheritor of Judson compositional experiments, but Wall Dance does not share the tight precise counting of that work or its controlled shifts into and out of phases. A duet for two men, the piece appears more improvised and playful: the dancers establish rhythmical patterns through swishing and stomping, shoulders pushed to twist the body in the exaggerated dressage of a fashion show. As in Voguing, the dancers often pause to strike a pose and pout at the visitors. Many of the Judson choreographers placed emphasis on pedestrianism, with a neutral style of performance. Harrell has kept some of the attention to the body that this stripped-back approach afforded but then asks how it might be dressed up, some drama added – some face, some glamour, some elements of queer playfulness that have been written out of this period of dance history.
In The Return of La Argentina (2015), a 30-minute solo performed by Harrell, this dressing up takes inspiration from Rei Kawakubo and Kazuo Ohno, the founders of Comme des Garçons and butoh respectively. La Argentina was the stage name of Antonia Mercé, a Spanish dancer, who Ohno had seen perform during his youth in the 1920s. In the 1970s, dancing in works choreographed by Tatsumi Hijikata, Ohno would call upon Mercé’s ghost to possess him. Harrell extends this complex series of recollections and conjurings, overlaying it with an attention to the detailed histories of fashion, duetting delicately with a floral Comme des Garçons gown. The Return is a mixture of different kinds of fetish: the rituals of performers in order to access a heightened shamanic state (Harrell demonstrates eating crisps and yoghurt according to a specific regimen) and the obsessive small details of magical value that make any dress into the dress. As in other works here, Harrell frames an unlikely meeting between excesses – those of immaterial and material culture, between ghosts and fashion.
In the exhibition’s central work, Caen Amour (2016), the dancing of La Argentina reappears, and for an hour clothes are danced with, rather than in, presented as offering rapturous animistic potential to the initiated. This isn’t a show essaying fashion or dance history, even though performers distribute information sheets to give background information. Both choreography and couture are systems for framing what a body might be worth, according to cultural and capital value, and Harrell’s interventions stir up the sedimentation of history in order to set it dancing again. Through fabulous fictional possessions, the ghosts of exoticized feminine Others are again called upon, the problems of a campy Eastern promise exposed but not fully exorcized so as to ask what pleasures they may still have to offer.
Main image: Trajal Harrell, Wall Dance, 'Hoochie Koochie', 2017, Barbican Art Gallery, London. Courtesy: Barbican, London; photograph: © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images