Dancing with Ghosts: Trajal Harrell’s Becoming/Chanelling/Voguing Kazuo Ohno/Tatsumi Hijikata/Antonia Merce

Trajal Harrell‘s The Return of La Argentina

One might attempt to describe choreographer and performer Trajal Harrell’s work as futurist historical fiction. What he often seems to do is reimagine the past, inserting himself and/or bodies like his own into places and times that might exclude him/them. He toys with ideas surrounding authenticity, truth, and whether or not the histories we tell ourselves may or may not be considered fact. In this era of political and social upheaval, where fake news and pseudoscience have pushed into the forefront of our daily lives, Harrell’s imaginative power seems to be particularly salient.

Harrell’s work in general raises a lot of questions about authenticity in performance. His most well-known work, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, considers what  Gérard Mayen calls “a search for the ‘realness’ of gesture” in the largely non-white and low-income world of voguing ballrooms on the one hand, and the perceived “authenticity” and “neutrality” of everyday gesture in the largely white, middle (or upper-middle)-income world of Judson-era postmodern dance on the other (taken from Harrell’s Artist Statement). In the end, this search for authenticity for Harrell seems to point only more so toward an “artificiality being performed at the root of all social identities.”

Similarly, The Return of La Argentina, which I saw at Participant, Inc. on March 15th as part of the 2017 Live Ideas Festival at New York Live Arts, considers the reality or authenticity of the archive, as Harrell’s performance “fictitiously remembers, stores, accounts for, forgets, registers, memorializes, ritualizes, and gives home to Ohno’s work.” (taken from Harrell’s program notes). In the post-performance conversation between Harrell, Bill T. Jones, and Mx Justin Vivian Bond, Harrell also refers to his performance as a kind of “fictitious archiving,” discussing the ways in which his performance might embody Kazuo Ohno’s spirit and feeling, but not his exact choreography. And if the archive is traditionally considered a place in which historical documents or records are stored, then indeed Harrell’s fictitious archiving is a kind of anti-archiving in which “history” or the “truth” as it might generally be accepted is challenged. Or perhaps more specifically, Harrell’s fictitious archive consideres the kind of tension between the archive and the repertoire that Diana Taylor writes about in The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. For Taylor, “The strain between […] the archive and the repertoire has often been constructed as existing between written and oral language.”, where the archive is comprised of primarily written text while the repertoire is primarily verbal (24). Throughout The Archive and the Repertoire, Taylor works to exemplify how “The linkage [between archive and repertoire] refutes colonial notions that the archival and biological are more lasting or accurate than embodied performance practice.” (173). Like Taylor, Harrell seems to refute the traditional archive in favor of something that considers Ohno’s work, but reinvents it rather than re-enacting it. In doing so, Harrell leaves an opening for the possibility of (re)invention inherent in that which cannot be written down. The archive is an interesting theoretical concept in that it exists simultaneously in the past present and future. It exists in the past because it is a record of what came before, but it also exists in the present and future because it is constantly being added to and evolving over time. I imagine that the kind of fictitious archiving that Harrell is undertaking speaks to a kind of archive that exists more heavily in the present and future as it references the past to imagine new worlds and new ways of being in those worlds.

The language Harrell uses to describe his archiving, both within the piece and during the post-performance conversation, seems to further indicate the fluid and nuanced way in which he interacts with the archive of Ohno’s work. He speaks about channeling Ohno, explaining that he allows the dance to happen to him to a certain extent (even though he has also loosely choreographed it). The way in which he envisions the dance puts it in the realm of a kind of seance, or at the very least, ritual practice. Before much dancing has begun, Harrell drinks some juice from two different bottles and eats some chips, explaining that this is something he must do before the piece begins so that it goes well. He also explains that if something goes wrong, that means that Ohno’s spirit is present. Then Harrell concocts a dish of yogurt, jam, and pistachios while telling us that the consumption of this dish is also a necessary part of the work. He eats it carefully, methodically; and when he’s done, the spoon and ceramic dish become a kind of gong, seemingly summoning the spirit of Ohno. Alternating between scraping the bowl with the spoon and rhythmically hitting the spoon against the bowl, Harrell orchestrates the vibration of the bowl and the air surrounding it, shifting the molecules of the room. The consumption of yogurt too literally changes the molecules in Harrell’s body. Are these rituals really necessary for Harrell and our belief in the channelling? Are they conduits to the spirit world? Are rituals real? Or rather, do they have real power? Here they have the power to create an agreement between Harrell, Ohno, and us, the audience, as we witness the transference of energy between Harrell, ourselves, and the space in which we reside.

Harrell is becoming Ohno, but is also himself because he does not replicate Ohno’s work. In Between Theater and Anthropology, Richard Schechner discusses the “in between” of performer who is neither fully himself, nor fully “other” (4). In this vein of thought, Harrell is caught between at least two identities: “‘not me…not not me’” (113). And to add various additional layers to this becoming, “Harrell is voguing Ohno voguing Argentina and/or Harrell is voguing Hijikata voguing Antonia Merce.” (taken from Harrell’s program notes). While voguing may be often associated with a one-dimensional idea of drag performance, in which the male performer tries to pass as female, in reality, voguing can often be a complex negotiation on and between social classes, genders, and racial lines. Like channeling and voguing, Harrell’s becoming Ohno (and Antonia Merce and Hijikata) is not an either-or proposition but a negotiation between identities. In “Becoming intense, becoming animal, becoming imperceptible…” from A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe the process of becoming as such: “Neither is it a resemblance, an imitation, or, at the limit, an identification” (262). And in fact, Harrell’s becoming/channeling/voguing Ohno (and Antonia Merce and Hijikata) is not an exact replica or precise archiving of Ohno’s Admiring La Argentina in which Harrell tries to be Ohno (Harrell insists that the audience doesn’t need to be familiar with Ohno’s work in order to watch The Return of La Argentina). Rather, Harrell creates something new, something beyond Ohno and Hijikata and Antonia Merce and even himself, by channeling/becoming/voguing. Harrell’s becoming is an always ongoing transformation along the lines of multiple identities culminating in a “becoming-imperceptible” (279) or “becoming everybody/everything” and in so doing, Harrell is able “to make a world or worlds, in other words, to find one’s proximities and zones of indiscernibility” (280).

Harrell’s channeling/becoming/voguing is not merely metaphor in that his movements and choreographies in their dynamic ambivalence, ever-changing, ever-shifting, ever-evolving, transform the bodies and environment in the performance space, thereby creating a new world of possibility. Drag is a very present aspect of Ohno’s work, as he often dressed as a woman, and in the case of Admiring La Argentina, channelled Merce’s very energy. Anna Kisselgoff noted this aspect of Ohno’s work in the New York Times, calling his dances “flamboyant exhibitions in drag.” We can imagine drag as cross-dressing, a male trying to pass as female, but we can also consider the ways in which drag is also a kind of transference and friction between surfaces, a mutually affecting becoming. Like Ohno, Harrell toys with aspects of drag performance by intermittently donning various ruffled flamenco garb, changing from one costume to the next. Harrell initially enters the space not wearing, but, rather, holding a pink floral dress up to his body, seemingly waltzing with it. Later, Harrell puts on just the sleeve of a ruffled red dress on one arm, and just the sleeve of a black ruffled dress on the other arm before eating his yogurt concoction. This partial dressing seems to reside somewhere in the realm of becoming-woman, because it seems fairly obvious that Harrell is not trying to pass for a “real” woman but is rather shifting between different identities, not settling. Like Ohno, who’s “drag” performances were often also grotesque with wigs and costumes askew, not pretty or overtly feminine, Harrell toes the line between genders. And furthermore, Harrell’s movements against the fabrics animate its ruffles, changing the garment’s dynamic purpose, just as Harrell’s body is reinscribed by his movements in and between these fabrics. Perhaps most memorably, there is a moment where Harrell’s hands animate two silk pouches which he wears like gloves. Harrell spins the pouches around his hands, and their silky fabric catches the light as they dance. Harrell waves his hands, and the pouches wave too. Harrell and the pouches drag upon each other, thereby changing each other.

Harrell also choreographs various and conflicting modes of feeling which seem to erupt almost simultaneously, inciting varied reactions from the audience. At one point, Harrell performs a kind of terror of an anonymous entity, moving tentatively, with small steps, his eyes signalling fear, and his mouth emitting a series of gasps, shrieks, and other indeterminate sounds. His movements eventually become faster and bigger, his feet pounding loudly and rhythmically on the floor in a mock flamenco. His arms move more wildly and his vocalizations become louder, crescendoing to a scream. This ambiguity of feeling, the juxtaposition of fear and courage, seems to traverse the borders between discrete feelings. In Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Brian Massumi discusses the nuance of emotion and affect:

Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-relation circuits, into function and meaning. (28)  

For Massumi, emotion is feeling which can easily be defined in accordance with its respective subject and object. Affect, however, is more difficult to pin down. Unlike emotion, affect is unqualified and “is not ownable or recognizable and is thus resistant to critique” (28). Existing outside of a particular place and time, or any semblance of a narrative, affect is “a suspension of action-relation circuits and linear temporality” (28). Harrell’s performance of seeming fear in one moment (fear of what/whom?) and of ferocity in the next confuses any kind of narrative formation and resists the logic of such. And outside of any linear narrative, time, rather than flowing forward, doubles over, past into future, future into past. Questions are raised, but left unanswered. And what this does for Harrell and for us as we take part in this seance is thwart our ability to pin him down as he evades any one particular mode of representation.

Toward the end of the piece, as Harrell waves goodbye (or hello) with the silk pouches on his hands, he shifts between performing a flirtatious coyness and a melodramatic mourning. In one moment his eyes sparkle as he giggles and waves, periodically hiding his mouth. In the next, he grips his chest fervently, sighing heavily, breathing and sobbing belabordly. During the post-performance conversation, Jones mentions that when Harrell performed this work in Singapore, people waved back to him, while here in New York, they didn’t. Jones described himself as hesitant, but in the end waved back. I observed many audience members giggling and laughing in response to Harrell’s coyness. But when Harrell begins to shift between coyness and sadness, the response is much less predictable. One audience member seemed to tear up in response to Harrell’s intense sadness, while some continued to nervously giggle. Others seemed more blank-faced. Harrell’s indeterminable affect seems to really confuse us; we are uncertain how best to respond. Again we don’t know who or what exactly Harrell is reacting to, nor do we know exactly how to react to him. The kinds of normal emotional responses we have been socially conditioned to express fall by the wayside, redirecting energies and feelings, resisting current regimes of power and stratification. Social/societal expectations are rendered inconsequential. Time is different, space is different, our bodies in relation to that space and time are different too. Through Harrell’s performative ambivalence (ambivalence of representation and of feeling, his becoming affective/an affective becoming), a new way of being, a new world emerges, one of infinite possibility, as the current one is upended.

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