The Tate Modern’s vast new performance space has brought the fleshy mass of live human bodies to the forefront of the London art scene, but it’s the Barbican that’s scored this year’s biggest coup.
For the next month New York-based choreographer and dancer Trajal Harrell will perform 14 semi-improvised pieces, involving 15 dancers for up to seven hours a day (Thursday-Sunday) throughout the Barbican’s main gallery space. The routines, which date from 1999 to the present, draw from a dizzying array of influences, from animalesque Japanese butoh, to classic Greek theatre; from vogueing (a practice taken from LGBT balls where people would compete to see who had the best walk) to belly-dancing.
It’s a bizarre, earnest, slightly awkward show, and if you approach it with even a modicum of cynicism you’ll probably hate it. But if you’re willing to engage, to let it wash over you, to consider the questions Harrell raises through these choreographed vignettes, you’ll discover something rather magical.
The intense combination of movement and sound – sometimes a haunting melody, sometimes little more than percussion – provokes a kind of ASMR response (that static-like tingling on the skin some people feel when they’re at the barber or optician). The dancers don’t just move around the viewers, they use them as props. In one piece Harrell lies across a row of onlookers before sitting on their knees one at a time, whispering into their ears and gazing into their eyes.
The responses are fascinating: some people laugh nervously, unable to maintain eye-contact, others stare right back at him, or put their arms around his shoulders. One woman closed her eyes orgasmically, seemingly enraptured to have, momentarily, become a work of art.
Other pieces are quieter: dancers move in slow motion through the gallery, pausing in people’s personal space, smouldering at them. Various sets are strewn across the area: a thrown-together, human-sized “dolls house” full of records and magazines and cleaning equipment; a fashion catwalk; a series of tiny white stages. There’s a Derek Jarman-esque quality to it, not only in the LGBT themes but the charmingly low-fi aesthetic. It’s all quite mad and, I think, quite brilliant.