Hoochie Koochie – Trajal Harrell: Barbican Art Gallery, The Barbican, London, 23 July 2017

London is voguing

Pouching Tiger, Hidden Rag On. A solo from Trajal Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie. Photo by Getty Images Europe

There’s a ballet by Alexander Ekman called Cacti that basically takes the piss out of critics trying to misguidedly pin meaning onto a choreographers intentions. I felt I was being sucked into the same trap with Trajal Harrell’s performance exhibition Hoochie Koochie at the Barbican Art Gallery in London.

Like many living choreographers Harrell talks (or writes) a good game. The white walls of the gallery are bedecked with literary paragraphs detailing context and inspiration, and they reference all the right names from the world of postmodern dance. As this is essentially a retrospective, that’s fair enough, you’d expect the equivalent if you went to a Duchamp exhibition.

Harrell’s primary focus is the world of voguing, a dance form that sprang out of the Harlem dance halls in the 1960s, and its relationship with the postmodern ideas of Judson Dance Theater who were simultaneously rejecting the existing practices and theory of Modern Dance. Although there are similarities between the two in the assertion that anyone can be a dancer, there are mostly huge contradictions, especially in the areas of glamour, camp and make-believe transformation. So many contradictions, in fact, that you wonder why Harrell continues to define his work against what Judson Dance Theater is not. It was 50 years ago, man, give it a rest.

The exhibition itself is cleverly laid out by giving each of the 14 works its own separate space. Sometimes just one performance is happening, at others, three or four across the gallery. It’s not a massive room, so everything’s easily accessible (sometimes you even find yourself accidentally walking into a performance) and the sound of a new piece of music is invariably the herald of another work starting elsewhere.

It’s the frenetic bursts of several things happening at once that are the most exciting; such as the rampant voguing of Let’s Get Sick scampering across the whole gallery while a statuesquely Grecian solo to P.J.Harvey hovers in one corner and the erotic tension of the yarn-linked The Untitled Still Life Collection unwinds in another.

Harell’s longer works don’t really survive his relatively limited choreographic expression – generally speaking, the ideas seem to be on the walls rather than in the movement – but the catwalk exuberance of In the Mood for Frankie was entertaining for a while. Hoochie Koochie is definitely something to take your brain along to, although whether that’s enough, I’m not sure.

Hoochie Koochie runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 13 August 2017. It only opens from Thursdays to Sundays though, so it’s worth checking the opening times on the Barbican website.

Gerard Davis

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