Arts

Trajal Harrell’s Dance Card Is Full

The American choreographer Trajal Harrell has a rule. Though he lives between Switzerland and Greece, he tries to make it home to Douglas, Ga., to visit his mother every three months.

Not this summer, however. “I really had to decompress,” Harrell said recently in Geneva, where he had just resumed touring with his company, the Schauspielhaus Zurich Dance Ensemble.

Call it the price of success: His schedule for 2023 lists 46 engagements across Europe and the United States. In July, Harrell took on France’s biggest stage, the open-air Cour d’Honneur of the Avignon Festival. A debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music will follow in November, with his 2021 work “The Köln Concert,” set to Keith Jarrett’s landmark 1975 performance and a selection of Joni Mitchell songs.

And in the meantime, the Festival d’Automne à Paris, a prestigious multidisciplinary event, is presenting a monthslong “Portrait” spanning nine works, opening on Sep. 22.

Harell performing “The Romeo” at Avignon Festival in France this year.Credit…Christophe Raynaud de Lage
“Used, Abused, and Hung Out to Dry,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2013.Credit…Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

Harrell appears onstage in all of these productions. The Paris retrospective showcases his ability to deconstruct existing styles and mold them to his “imagination,” a word he frequently returned to in an interview.

Unusually, this late starter — he turned to dance after graduating from Yale in the 1990s — has never taken formal classes in any of the techniques that have most influenced him, which include vogueing and Japanese Butoh. Instead, he observed them from the outside, and took from their “theoretical underpinnings,” he said, rather than copying what he saw.

In his sprawling breakout project, “Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church,” initiated in 2009, he dreamed up a choreographic encounter between the early postmodern choreographers that worked at Judson Dance Theater, in the 1960s, and the Harlem vogueing ball scene.

Since then, Harrell has refined a stripped-down approach to movement, featuring the signature tiptoeing, he derived from runway walks. “He has a minimalist approach that is so deep in references,” said Maria Ferreira Silva, a dancer at the Schauspielhaus Zurich. Yet she was also drawn to his warmth, she added. “He just goes full-hearted onstage, and he brings everyone along.”

After being introduced to a movement-based theater practice in college, Harrell said, “I came back to my body, and all of a sudden I just wanted to move.” Credit…Karla Hiraldo Voleau for The New York Times

Harrell’s imagination was shaped, he said, by his “very idyllic Southern upbringing” in Douglas, as part of a well-to-do Black family. “My grandfather was the patriarch of the town. He came of age in the ’50s, and managed to buy land,” Harrell said. “There was a certain kind of poetry to language, to eating, to being. My grandparents were always using metaphors, like: ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat.’”

The academically gifted Harrell was pushed to be ambitious by his college-educated parents. A self-described “drama kid,” he considered a career in acting, but after being introduced to the Six Viewpoints, a movement-based theater practice in college, he said, “I came back to my body, and all of a sudden, I just wanted to move.”

“I didn’t want to speak anymore,” he added.

After years as a freelance choreographer, in 2019, Harrell was invited to form a permanent dance company at the Schauspielhaus Zurich, one of the German-speaking world’s most high-profile theaters. It allowed him to work on a more ambitious scale, and with a full-time group of dancers: “It was a turning point where we began to share a movement style, a philosophy of movement,” he said.

His next production, “Tambourines,” will be loosely inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter.” “I’ve been thinking about how to reclaim this idea of the fallen woman. What if there had been like a community of people to support her?,” said Harrell, who studied with the feminist thinker bell hooks at Yale.

“Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church,” Harrell’s sprawling breakout project, in New York in 2012.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
“The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai,” performed in Montpellier, France, in 2015.Credit…Jean-Marx Zaorski/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

Yet this new work, and the Festival d’Automne’s “Portrait,” come as Harrell faces unexpected change. Last winter, the city of Zurich declined to renew the contract of the duo of artistic directors that brought Harrell to Switzerland, Benjamin von Blomberg and Nicolas Stemann. When they leave in 2024, the Schauspielhaus Zurich Dance Ensemble will fold.

“We will leave, but there are still some talks to go. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the repertoire,” Harrell said.

He was philosophical about moving on from such a demanding schedule. “You get a lot from it, but after a while, for me, the cost is too high. I need more freedom,” he said, adding that he hoped to keep working with a company in Zurich.

And he is also making plans for a future away from the dance world. “I want a second act,” he said. “I love what I do, but it’s a very specific lifestyle. I have an inkling of how many more years I can do — but certainly not for the rest of my life.”

He was already considering a master’s degree in disability studies, he said, inspired by growing up with a sister who had cerebral palsy. “And I really, really want more time with my family and my loved ones.”

“I love making art,” he said before heading out to warm up for a performance. “But, you know, it’s not the most important thing in the world.”

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