Trajal Harrell has been on tour since 2007, living out of suitcases until three years ago, when he chose Athens as a European home base. It's a grueling lifestyle, but he's grateful.
"It's rare that people get to make their living in contemporary dance, especially for American artists," Harrell says by phone from Greece, the day before heading to Argentina to present (M)imosa, part of his dance collection Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, which imagines a meeting of Harlem's vogue balls and the Judson Church's postmodern dance pioneers. The project has become something of a blockbuster, and it has positioned Harrell as one of his field's most intriguing and innovative artists.
In September, Harrell began a two-year residency at New York's Museum of Modern Art to explore the current objects of his curiosity: Tatsumi Hijikata, one of the fathers of butoh, a disquieting dance genre that grew out of post-World War II Japan, and the fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, in whose unsparing clothes Harrell sees a kinship to butoh's sexuality and transgression.
"This work is very obscure -- it can be dark and ugly," he says. This is a new direction for Harrell, and certainly a shift from the playfulness of Twenty Looks. "But this is what excites me -- to see if I can bring my audience along."
It's this blend of intellectual curiosity, risk, and a broad social lens that sets Harrell's work apart from much of the insular dance of today. Dance, he says, is "a way of thinking about the future and history."