The Passion of the Performance: Trajal Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie at the Barbican

In the Art gallery of the upper floor of the Barbican, there are dancers, Trajal Harrell, the music, and us. Without our presence, there wouldn’t be a show, without the dancers there wouldn’t be any movement, and without Harrell there wouldn’t be any life. As I advanced into the mixture of different tunes, ram into a performer and try to decipher the schedule supposed to guide me, I suddenly cease to understand the order and surrender to a space which promises to be unconventional.

Hoochie Koochie recreates all the Harrell’s work spanning 2008 to recent productions. An armada of dancers/performers have joined in to replay the performances originally executed by the American choreographer. There is no stage, everyone is at the same level, the dancers hustle into the crowd, agitating their arms, looking fierce and sharp, walking with attitude, and posing with grace. Their language is spoken by their bodies which borrow the codes of the runway show, voguing, Japanese butoh, and modern dance. The ubiquitous music emphasises the dynamic beats to which the dancers stroll, announcing a faster choreography (Let’s Get Sick) or a slower performance (Ghost Trio). Each set plays a different rhythm, acting like the score of the exhibition, to which the notes are the dancers and Harrell is the conductor.

I am asked to take a seat and before I know it, a performer walks around, sitting on each of the participants’ laps (Show Pony). It is not a compulsory exercise but avoiding it would be missing out on one of Harrell’s leitmotif: swathe the viewers with art by placing them at the centre of his artistic scenarios. I participate to the experience and together with the performer I like to think that I have entertained the supportive audience. The feeling is unique and this immersive process admirable, smart, and completely selfless. It is not only Harrell’s artistic flair which can be sensed but his sincere passion for his craft, from the sets, the music, the selection of his performers, to the choice of the clothes.

It is Harrell himself who conducts Caen Amour, and to what seems like a Brazilian slow melody, he delights his audience with voluptuous movements which he creates with the twirls of his arms, the delicate steps he takes on the point of his toes, and his smile, ever so charming. His love for his performance is contagious. The room is filled with a palpable artistic energy which urges me to keep exploring the other performances. The set up and the performers do not disappoint, however Harrell’s presence is electric. The re-enactment of Japanese master Kazuo Ohno’s face expressions in The Return of La Argentina marks the artist’s commitment and fascination for the genre. It is not therefore surprising to think that he transforms into another person in this performance/theatre piece, as butoh’s foundation is the abandonment of the self.

In the space of a second, Harrell inhabits a character voguing, disappears within his own body, and transcends a dancing piece. This retrospective appears to me as an immersive dancing playground, where the spirits are high and the art of dance and performance honoured. It is a shame that it somehow has to end, and Oh wait, the two dancers from Let’s Get Sick just stormed out form the staircase, the music is loud and pumping, both disappear to the back of the space, voguing and cat-walking, I’ll stay ten more minutes.

TAMARA AKCAY

Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie
A performance exhibition
20 July 2017 – 13 August 2017
Art Gallery, Barbican Centre

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