Interview with choreographer Trajal Harrell

“I stuck with it. I put on my blinders and told myself “if you keep going, it’s just a matter of time”. It’s not like I didn’t have any support but at the beginning it really was very very hard.”

Interview with choreographer Trajal Harrell

What are the highlights of your career to date? 

The Barbican exhibition, Hoochie Koochie, in 2017 was a big thing for me. I had created a lot of different work by that point, but for someone to put it all together is a big deal. Even for people who didn’t see the exhibition, it sent out a signal to the world that this work is important. This was a breakthrough moment for me.  

The second highlight is happening now. Avignon Festival have invited me to perform at the Cour d'Honneur du Palais des Papes, the most prestigious event at the annual performing arts festival. It’s a new direction heading the festival; and they chose me to represent Dance this year. It’s a huge honour. 

How has your background, upbringing and education had an impact on your artistic career? 

Growing up, my family always danced around the house, at family occasions, at reunions. They always made fun of me that I was the bad dancer. It’s a family joke that I became the person who went out into the world and became a professional Dancer/Choreographer.  

I was also a gymnast as a young kid and that had a big influence on me. At a very early age I had a dedicated sense of training my body. I learned to do flips, through the air! This kind of risk taking as a young kid, even if you don’t continue to do gymnastics, gives you something later on. Philosophically it gave me this risk taking as an artist.  

In terms of my education, I went to Yale University. I studied with some great teachers who are still a big part of my work, like bell hooks, a well-known African American feminist theorist. You may think nothing of it today, when everyone is talking about these themes, but getting introduced to gender and women’s studies at that point was a big thing. You see these types of inquiries and complexities a lot in my work. 

Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?

When I decided I wanted to focus on the Runway movement, people thought that this was not Dance. They were very dismissive. I knew that theoretically, historically, it could push things. So I stuck with it. I put on my blinders and told myself “if you keep going, it’s just a matter of time”. It’s not like I didn’t have any support but at the beginning it really was very very hard. That was the biggest challenge, to stick to my convictions and be patient.  

I was really inspired by historical figures. I knew that Dance wasn’t easy because I read all these biographies of dancers and choreographers and their struggles. But it’s so different when you go through it in real life. My first work was from 1999, and it was 2007 before anybody started paying attention to me. It was 8 years of no one noticing, and me doing my own thing, but I believed that it was going somewhere.  

Are there any online support spaces you’re a part of, and if so, how have they helped you? 

The best support networks are my friends and other artists. They’re the ones that get you through the hard times, the other people who are struggling like you. Often they’re the ones who help you when you need a job or need a recommendation. They’re the people who tell you “keep going, don’t give up!”. We often don’t give enough credit to peer networks and they are so important.  

Can you tell us more about your latest show, Porca Miseria?

I did a lot of research into the voguing ballroom scene for many years and it intrigued me how they use the word ‘bitch’. They have reclaimed it and use it as an honorific. So I wanted to look at this term, at strong women who refused to be silenced. 

I created this show as a trilogy, I wanted people to have options for how to engage. I think of it as a sort of Exhibition in the Theatre, where I give them different kinds of media. Deathbed is a gallery performance set on the stage with close proximity. O Medea is a film, and Maggie the Cat is a big theatre production with the audience in the seats with a frontal viewpoint. 

As a choreographer whose work has toured across the globe, do you ever have to make considerations for regionality in your work, or do you think dance is truly universal?

I always wanted my work to be international. I take that into consideration right away. We build this into the work because I want it to be seen by as many people as possible. Some dance is only movement and instrumental music so you don’t need to translate verbal language… but dance is a language and still needs to convey meaning and thus different kinds of agreements are needed.

We can talk a lot about the research that I do but at its heart my work is very emotional. The thing I’m most interested in is the togetherness, this time we experience together in the theatre that can only happen at that one moment. Regardless of where you are, in Chile or London, Zurich or San Francisco, you have to be present with those people. You have to be in the moment with them and share your heart.  

It’s hard as a performer to give your emotions night after night but you will always find people, no matter where you are, who desire to have their emotions represented. To not be alone. To feel that someone, somewhere, knows a part of this. That’s what I think is common among people. We all have struggles, different beliefs, but everyone knows sadness, grief, feeling love-starved or knows unrequited love. When you are willing to share those vulnerabilities on the stage, people really appreciate it.  

Your work has challenged conceptions of stereotypes and the othering of communities, particularly the Black and LGBTQI+ communities. Do you think society is moving in the right direction regarding the acceptance of different communities? If not, what’s going wrong?

When we started doing this work, there wasn’t language. Terms such as non-binary and gender fluidity weren’t well known. We didn’t have words to help us. But we knew we wanted something that wasn’t about rigid categories. We knew that not everyone fits into those, necessarily. I do think we have improved a lot. And as you improve, you have more backlash. There are people who want the status quo, that’s to be expected. Change takes time, The road is not direct. Patience is required on both sides.  

At the same time, we have to demand certain things. Not be satisfied with the status quo.  

At the same time we have to forgive a lot of people. Everyone’s not had the exposure and experience that we’ve had. It might take them longer to get there.  

I often try to imagine that they were my grandparents. You love them but there are things about you that, if you tell them, they just won’t get it. So don’t just give up or stay quiet, but change takes time. That gift of patience and forgiveness is really hard. But I agree, we still have a ways to go.  

Finally, do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?

It’s about conviction and perseverance and believing what your gut is telling you. You have to keep going, you can’t give up. The effort and commitment is often the thing itself.

Header Image Credit: Tristram Kenton


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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