Enter into the Barbican’s gallery space, and an audience is huddled around a trio of young male dancers in loose, draped clothing, shuffling on tiptoe and making gentle reaching arm movements. This is ‘Ghost Trio’ (2015) a ten-minute dance choreographed by Trajal Harrell, based on the idea of what would happen if the French contemporary choreographer Dominique Baguoet and Butoh co-founder Tatsumi Hijikata met in a New York nightclub and imitated each other’s dancing.
Harrell’s ‘Hoochie Koochie’ performance exhibition at the Barbican is a survey of his work from 1999 to 2016, immediately following the choreographer’s intensive two-year residency at MoMA. During the residency, Harrell developed his practice through research on the life and work of Hijikata, and incorporated Butoh with his own vogue-runway meets postmodern dance aesthetic. This concept is overt in a piece like ‘Ghost Trio’ (2015), where an imagined meeting of human embodiments of Japanese Butoh (Hijikata) and postmodernist dance (Baguoet via French contemporary dance) occurs in a language of performance. Several other dances taking place in the Barbican exhibition were created during Harrell’s MoMa residency, such as ‘Odori, The Shit!’ (2015), a piece that references Japanese traditional dance alongside African-American slang in the title, and ‘Caen Amour’ (2016), Harrell’s most recent work. This is the central focus of the exhibition with its direct reference to Butoh and the ‘exotic’ ‘Hoochie Koochie’ shows that travelled America during the 20th century.
This performance exhibition has a rich and refreshing focus on collectivity and collaboration, not only in terms of Harrell’s inclusion of his recent research into Butoh dance but also stretching out into other dance movements and influential creative disciplines. American choreographer Katherine Dunham, Butoh muse and dancer Yoko Ashikawa, Hong Kong Second Wave film-maker Wong Kar-Wai, fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and pop star Sade are together noted as influences in ‘In The Mood for Frankie’, a genre-bending dance performed on a fashion runway by Harrell and dancers Ondrej Vidlar and Thibault Lac. This multifaceted inclusivity reinvigorates the sources themselves while simultaneously energising Harrell’s work to create exciting and unique performances.
The Barbican’s gallery space is equally reinvigorated with the vivacious, playful, human energy that permeates the exhibition space through performance. The dances take place in all corners of the gallery’s lower level, some in their own staged areas such as ‘Showpony’ (2007), ‘The Return of La Argentina’ (2015) and ‘The Conspiracy of Performance’ (2010), which the audience flock to when the performance is about to start, or in ‘Let’s Get Sick’ (2013) a brief high-energy furious dance contagion where the performers throw themselves around the whole gallery main space and the audience chase after them in wonder, participating in the event of the spectacle. It is the inclusive and thoughtful quality of Harrell’s work, which makes this exhibition so inspiring - the innovative use of costume, music and multi-layered references are as much part of the choreography as the dancer’s physical movements.