Read more - The Köln Concert
It's a no-brainer
An interview with Trajal Harrell, by Katinka Deecke (Progam leaflet Schauspielhaus Zurich, 2020)
Katinka Deecke: Do you have a theory why the Köln Concert is so famous?
Trajal Harrell: There is something special about this piece. You can’t really put your finger on what it is, but isn’t that just the mystery of all great art? Many people who love the Köln Concert don’t particularly like Jarrett, and others who love Jarrett’s music don’t like the Köln Concert. It’s very old but new, it’s very classical but jazzy, it’s very popular, and even avant-garde. You can feel this breath of richness in it and it’s unmistakable that it leaves a mark. When I listen to it now in the Pfauen, I remember how I used to wonder how this was possible in music. I don’t know any other music where someone is so physically involved in it. He is so physical in the execution of his playing and his concert manner: the way he does the pedal, the guttural sounds. In the recording I feel his body. To me, it feels like it came straight from the southern states of America. The music has a strong sense of Dixieland and swing and gospel. I love the feeling of wondering where something came from and that something came into this world that wasn’t expected before.
You’ve said Jarrett is “your” composer. What defines a good composer for a choreographer?
It’s hard to say. As soon as you hear the music, you just know that it was written for you. “Your” music also brings you closer to your dancing. You’re searching for your dance when you’re a choreographer and all of a sudden you hear this music and it opens up a whole world. My work is enriched by Jarrett, it develops further through the encounter with his body of work. But I had so much respect for this work that it took me 20 years before I wasn’t afraid to dance to his music publicly. 20 years is quite a long time when you consider that it is all about getting involved with “my” music…
The evening does not start with Jarrett, there is an exposition of four songs by Joni Mitchell. What does Joni Mitchell have to do with Keith Jarrett?
I feel like Joni’s a bit like Keith. In Jarrett I found “my” composer but in Joni Mitchell, I’ve probably found my singer.” When I was at Yale, I saw a piece by the Yale Dancers to Joni Mitchell’s All I Want (he sings: “I am on a lonely road and I am travelling...”) and it was only then that I really understood what modern dance is. I will never forget this song and these women doing the dance – I was completely blown away. Since then I always wanted to do Joni Mitchell; which, again, took me 20 years to do.
I was concerned with the question of how I should deal with the Köln Concert, how to contextualize the beginning music when it sounds in the auditorium for the first time. And then I had the idea that Joni Mitchell could be the opening act for Keith Jarrett. I don’t think Joni Mitchell would open a concert for many artists, but I bet she would do it for Keith Jarrett. Just like him, Joni also has a strong sense of the piano in a lot of her work, they both have a strong connection to the blues. I think she always sings the blues somehow and Keith Jarrett was the same – he’s playing the blues in a certain type of way.
Keith Jarrett is famous for improvisation, for great improvised solo recitals on the piano, and the Köln Concert in particular is one of the most border-crossing improvisations in music history. What does improvisation mean to you and your work?
At the beginning of rehearsals, we work a lot with free forms: everything is quite free, there is a lot of leeway, I absorb a lot from the spontaneous ideas of the dancers. As we go on during the rehearsals, they become less and less free and it’s not very free by the end. But even if the choreography during the performance does not evolve from the moment, we try to always create this space of freedom even if it’s not there: make it feel like it’s the first time it happens. I am always interested in being in the moment, in the now, completely focused. The choreography is not free, but the moment must be free. That is what I am working on. Jarrett is a great teacher in that way. I know I will never have the experience of hearing the Köln Concert like the people who heard it that night at the Cologne Opera House in January 1975. We hear the record and we can hear it again and again and you feel this sense of freedom run through the music. When I think about great art, it has a lot to do with being in the moment: I want the audience to feel that it’s happening right there and then, only in this moment to moment, with them in the room, and that’s something we work on. He’s a great teacher to understand what goes into that recipe.
Does your relationship to music change when you are on stage? Is there a difference between you as a dancer and you as a choreographer?
I’m not the kind of choreographer who can sit back and watch the picture that is created in front of him. It still has to go through my body and that’s such a nightmare. Even when I just watch, I see my body in all of it and I know that I’ve been through it. The choreographer in me has ideas, but I don’t believe in them until the dancer in me signs the contract. The dancer has to get in there and know that it works. As a choreographer, I can have all these ideas, but they don’t mean anything until they go through the dancing body. I see the difference it makes when I put my body through it, because I can share much more information with the dancers. There’s a certain level of knowledge I can only get from being in it physically and digesting it. I can’t do it with my mind. I don’t think I will continue choreographing after I stop dancing.
Of course, your production of The Köln Concert is rehearsed at an unusual moment in history. We had originally planned to present a showcase with some of your great ensemble productions at the beginning of this season, but then we had to reschedule because of the coronavirus. When we asked you what you could imagine showing under corona conditions instead, you suggested the Köln Concert. How difficult was it to adapt to the special conditions?
Not very difficult, not really. When you asked me to do a piece under corona conditions, I thought of the piano benches. I’ve been using them for a while in several pieces and I thought that was the best way to authentically deal with this situation. I started to think about what I would do if there was nothing but these piano benches on stage. That brought me to the idea of dancing to music. Soundtrack is big in my work, but I’ve never actually worked with a specific piece of music at the center of my work. Of course, I’ve done literature Romeo and Juliet, Antigone, Cat on the Hot Tin Roof, but I have never done a piece defined titularly by the music. Then, when I had the piano benches, I knew the piece of music: the Köln Concert. I didn’t know if I was ready yet to choreograph the Köln Concert, but this is what I wanted to do. Then I took some weeks to know if I could really do it and I listened to it and listened to it. I thought: “If you’re not ready now, you’ll never be ready.” And I felt it was good to be a little not-ready. I was scared of it, the Köln Concert is after all Jarrett’s masterpiece, but the only way is to keep learning from Jarrett and try to be in his world. In the end, I am glad that due to the coronavirus I was forced to strip down in some ways to this: piano benches and music.
The Köln Concert at the Pfauen is the first production where the dance company, which you have founded at the Schauspielhaus, presents itself. Can you describe the vocabulary, the style you want to develop with this dance company? What is the quality and language of the movement? Which images of the body? Which traditions?
It’s a complicated thing to develop a language and a style that has enough definition and specificity but yet can grow in its topography on different bodies. My legacy, I am very clear about that, is influenced by voguing, I developed runway language as a dance procedure into the history of dance. Starting from there I layered the experiences I had looking at Butoh, the dances of Greek Antiquity, and at Modern and Postmodern Dance. Of course, there’s a kind of academism about it; but in the end, it is simply a matter of bringing dance on stage together with a group of dancers who are part of this debate and who are committed to this path with their bodies. To me, being given this space at the Schauspielhaus Zürich and forming a new company meant I had to step into a kind of maturity. During the lockdown and quarantine, I had time to reflect on myself. I think, finally, I was able to take an assessment of where I’ve been and where I want to go. It’s about developing a vocabulary that I share with a group of dancers. Philosophically, I’m not into pure replication; I don’t want to copy paste myself. Each of them is a different example of how the material is processed in different bodies and develops over the years. It is not simply a question of what I contribute or in which direction I want to develop our language; instead, the company is this language, is this knowledge, this body history, is all the different areas that ultimately compose our dance. I find it interesting that The Köln Concert is now our first play at the Schauspielhaus and not The Deathbed of Katherine Dunham as originally planned. The Köln Concert will probably be like a calling card for these people who have now come here to the Schauspielhaus Zürich to dance. It is a dance piece to music, which is a clear and powerful convention we’re playing with; giving it this emblematic place and feeling and in some way it’s very liberating to get there.
Here in Zurich, we now have time to continue developing a common language that we have been working on for many years. We are allowed to be patient, things are allowed to unfold bit by bit. You can’t fly there just by reserving a ticket; it takes time to form a dance company, to feel comfortable, and to have all the parts of your body and mind that have gone through the experiences. This is quite a wonderful opportunity. It’s a big deal. Not every choreographer has the resources to do that: being able to build a company and a language. Working on your own company takes time to 24 25 integrate it in your life. You have a different mission and everything is seen through a different prism, through which you watch what is happening and what you yourself and others do. It’s about having the stamina to explore the ultimate possibilities: to find out where you stand, your potential, and what your impact on the world might be.
The day before yesterday at rehearsal you said, “Movement is only an excuse to dance.” What did you mean by that?
Well, I have to go back a little bit. It’s been a big concern in dance for a while, certainly since the early 1960s in Postmodern Dance how dance relates to an audience and the public, even with their bodies. This idea of “all movement is dance” was really important: that dance could include all different kinds of movement and different kinds of behaviors and ways of being in the world with the body and that all of it could be material for the dance. But this idea reached a point of often not being interesting anymore. Of course, every movement can be a dance but it’s not that interesting to watch on a stage always. Boredom can be impactful in art. But general definitions in art without refinement often peter out. So, I, myself, became very involved in the question: what is dancing? I want to look at dance and how it differentiates itself from movement and in the dialog I have with the performers, dancers and artists with whom I work. I pull together a lot of strands of culture, history and physicality to make a particular kind of dancing. So, it’s not that I have a fixed sense of what dancing is, but I’m trying to refine these strands that I’m bringing into a dancing body. When people say they like watching dance, I always wonder why they say dance and not movement. How is dance different from movement? A significant part of my work and the dialogue with the dancers is to create a “dancing body,” to allow dance to happen. A lot of our work now is about trying to build this dancing body; that what one is watching is dancing. The thing I want you to see is dancing and the thing I want people to enjoy and relate to is dancing. I want them to be able to comprehend this particular realm of activity. The rehearsal the day before yesterday is a good example of this: we were talking about a simple movement phrase that we were rehearsing. I was trying to get the dancers to fill out the rest of the space and I said “movement is an excuse for dancing” because I wanted them to know that they needed to bring this other stuff – the ingredients to make it go into movements that are connected together as dance.
A year ago, when you and the dancers had just arrived in Zurich, you gave them an assignment for the next few years, and you repeated this assignment at the beginning of the rehearsals for The Köln Concert: you asked the dancers to work on their “Butoh mind”. What do you mean by that?
Oh. That’s a tough question. Let’s say it like this: Until some years ago I was a choreographer simply doing his work. Then I met my dancing “parent” in the Butoh dancer Kazuo Ōno and only then did I become a dancer. Before I had been involved in researching Butoh but mainly through looking at the work of Ōno’s colleague Tatsumi Hijikata. Then I saw Ōnos great solo Admiring La Argentina and it just blew me away. Ōno was perhaps in his mid- 70s when he danced it, Hijikata had choreographed it for him. I could not believe what I saw. Through this solo I realized that this is what dance means to me. So, I just had to go into that deeply and made a piece about it called The Return of La Argentina. And then I started dancing from a different place.
Part of our technique, if you want to call it technique, is based on the runway. The other part is Butoh and what I call “Butoh mind.” But it’s very hard to explain because it’s caught up in a lot of language of avant-garde dance practice that these people in Japan created in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. So, “Butoh mind” has a lot to do with accepting that the dancing body is not just a body of strength but it’s a body that is in decay. Dance is often about being springs of life, about embodiments of life and strength and beauty. Butoh is also about death, weakness and sickness, and this is an important element of life too. We started to bring these elements together: something that wasn’t just about glamour and beauty but something that was about ugliness, sickness; bringing together the body of the mannequins on the runway with that of the feeble, the prostitutes, the people living on the margins of society, drug addicts and beggars. This is the history of Butoh, the other side of life embodied in Butoh. When you bring all that information and representations into the dancing body and start thinking about the dancing body not just as an emblem of perfection but as an emblem of real imperfections you start to feel differently about yourself on stage. It takes a lot of time to change this mindset and allow yourself to show aspects of yourself that you may have thought should not be seen or don’t look good on stage. But the more I did it, the more I found people were touched by the work. Even if the audience may not know the background and what Butoh is, they often let themselves be affected by this kind of dance.
I used to dance from a place of trying to achieve or represent something; now I’m really dancing from a place of the trashcan somehow. You don’t care so much, you let it all hang out. And by letting it all hang out, you find a new kind of freedom. I also think something comes with age. That’s beautiful about Butoh that it’s not like other dance where the body has an expiry date. Butoh has no parameters. They don’t even define it. The fact that I’m trying to define Butoh is not “Butoh mind”. The point where you start to define it, you lose it. It’s always ungraspable. But when you allow yourself to dance from that place that you can never be perfect, something else happens. People feel that. Because “Butoh mind” is invigorating. I feel this in myself and I can also recognize it in the dancers that we are in “Butoh mind” when we dance: where you are able to show the things about yourself that aren’t beautiful. The other side of beauty. People recognize it because they know its inside of themselves. We all know it even though we might not admit it: We have both parts. That becomes beauty. Beauty is becoming… But oh mind: it’s a lifelong thing.
The tradition of the Schauspielhaus Zürich is located in a very specific form of the performing arts, which is linked to literature, language, acting, and the institution itself stands for power, influence and hierarchy. Although this tradition is diversified and developed, it can be claimed that the traditions and stories you refer to are different from those the theater represents. How do you position yourself in it?
One way I position myself is that my work will have to change when moving to such an institution and I’m excited for that. I think that here in Zurich I came to the notion that it’s where I’ll change to the next period of my work: after Runway / early-Postmodern Dance in the first phase, and then Butoh / Modern Dance, now the third phase is coming. That’s one thing to know that the Schauspielhaus is a place where I can change. Until now my work was very much connected to Asia and that’s still part of the work I do; but I really felt that it’s time for a change.
I position myself as someone who creates work in a European context – although I will never fully belong anywhere, that’s just me, always one foot out. Maybe that’s from growing up in a small town: you always want to get out of there as quickly as possible... I like the change, the back and forth, the “to-ing and fro-ing.” Trinh T. Minh-ha who’s a filmmaker and professor at UC Berkeley, and who’s written extensively on feminism and postcolonialism, and like bell hooks has talked a lot about “to-ing and fro-ing,” meaning how to move from the margins to the center and back again to the margins, and how there one can position a space of the imagination. This movement between margin and center is a vital force. This is what I strive for. I’m not only situating myself somewhere culturally or nationally. I’m moving through and between and that gives me a lot of space for my imagination. If I position myself in any way, I always try to problematize my position. In this problematization lies a gap between knowing this is something I can approach and knowing that I am something else. In this gap I can prescribe an imaginative process. And its only mine. It’s the only thing in this world that I really feel that I own. The only thing that is uniquely and utterly mine. I try to share it, but you can’t take it away from me. Unless I let you – but I’m so protective of it. It’s a beautiful thing to have an imagination.
We have now talked a lot about dance and movement, about the history of your work and about the traditions in which you place yourself. Now, I would like to address a topic that struck me a few days ago during our first stage rehearsal for The Köln Concert: it seems that you are the first Black person to direct at the Pfauen.
Oh Dear! Wow!
What are your thoughts on that?
Switzerland is not my home culture. In that sense, I do not “know” how to precisely understand it. Of course, I have been working internationally for many years and also a lot in Europe, and I have already done a few “firsts” in that way. And they’ve been important for other artists and my grandparents (both sets dead.) What’s interesting and problematic is that I don’t access it like that. Of course I would in the United States because I know the history there and I could judge what certain steps mean, just as Kamala Harris is now the first black woman to run for Vice President, I understand exactly what it means. But here in Switzerland, I don’t know precisely. It’s not the culture of my youth. I didn’t grow up thinking: I have to be the first Black person to direct at the Pfauen. This step, that I am the first, means nothing and something to me. Of course, I think it’s wonderful AND sad, but I don’t work from that place. Perhaps the fact that I don’t follow these classifications and don’t define myself through them makes it easier for me to avoid the pitfalls, because I don’t know the pitfalls here and I don’t know how dangerous they might be. Again, the “to-ing and fro-ing” by Trinh T. Minh-ha, is so integrated in my work. I’m happy if I can tear down some of these walls and make access for other people. I don’t have a problem being the one but I’m not working on it. I understand how important it is that someone who looks like me is now at the Schauspielhaus and is directing at the Pfauen. I’m honored. But I’m not making it my business. It’s a look, but it’s not the only look. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that I come from the southern part of the United States of America. I grew up with the dialogue of race in southern life and history. I grew up on MLK Jr Drive. I know about slavery and the US Civil Rights movements in the 1950s and 60s. I did cultural studies and feminist theory in college: bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker and many more. It’s so integrated in me and my work. When you come to see my work, you’re not just going to see the possibly first Black person directing at the Pfauen, you’re coming to see the first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth, tenth, twelfth all rolled into one with the ones who didn’t get the opportunity and the ones who didn’t even ignore it. For I am not only one but carry with me the many whose thoughts I have absorbed. There are these hurdles and I don’t deny them. But the fact that I am perhaps the first Black person to direct at the Pfauen does not define me nor my work. Again, I am honored enough but honest enough to know we are late to class. I’m practiced in being the first or only brown person in the room. And, whether these firsts are true or not, nothing in the work changes for me. Because I know that all these people and stories are an integral part of my work, my dances, and my plays. In articles they’ve often written about me as “The Next Martha Graham.” I thought it was an important step in the class. Let’s see what they come up with in Europe. Maybe they will skip it and someone will be called “The Next Trajal Harrell.” (Ha, I better be dead!) That said, I fight for differences on every level in the work. That all goes back to “Butoh mind”. It’s a no-brainer.
You have been working internationally for many years and over the years you have acquired a very heterogeneous audience of different languages and backgrounds: Dance experts and educated people, teenagers and seniors, heterosexual cis-people and various queer communities, wealthy whites and activists of color. What does he / she / they look like, your ideal spectator?
I’m an old whore. I love them all. If you look at it on the surface I don’t make work that a lot of people should like, but rather that is suitable for a smaller and selected group of people. So, it was a surprise that my work sold out houses and big festivals, this was weird. But this attention from the audience exists maybe because I’m in love with my audience. I don’t discriminate. I just have to love them all, that’s the only way. I usually can’t wait for the opening night: standing on stage and watcing them, seeing them enter. I love that, I love them. Once I even threw my whole touring schedule overboard just to play one last performance at the Münchner Kammerspiele to say goodbye to the audience. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being with these people. There were so many people, many older people that talked to me after the show and thanked me. I even made a piece for them in Munich, Morning in Byzantium. It is a play for “the old white man” who is going through a difficult time right now. I wanted to give him some love. What would that look like? It was 2018. It might look different in 2020, but it was / is an important inquiry and exercise alongside imagining love for “very young blue women,” etc etc. But it is exhausting to love the audience unconditionally and it takes a lot of energy. It’s easy to go on stage and do it for yourself; but to love and think about the audience, it takes a lot. Maybe that’s even the reason why I never worked permanently at a theater before Zurich, instead I only ever went on tours, travelling constantly from one place to another. Because if you stay in the same place, you inevitably fall deeply head of over heels in love with the audience.