visual & performing arts / interviews / trajal harell & emmanuelle huynh dialogue

Trajal Harell and Emmanuelle Huynh in Dialogue

November 2, 2012 | By French Culture
Emmanuelle Huynh (right) Trajal Harell (left)

A conversation between French choreographer Emmanuelle Huynh and American choreographer Trajal Harrell, July 7, 2010, as part of the Dance Dialogues publication.

Trajal Harrell: I am working on a project called Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church and I started this because I wanted in some ways to encapsulate the influence of the Judson Dance Theater on my work but also to push beyond it and to rethink the kind of myth around Judson. I am wondering if you too feel this tension between the myth of Judson, how it has influenced you, and wanting to move beyond it.

Emmanuelle Huynh: I first heard of the Judson while I was studying philosophy in my early 20’s - but my understanding of it was not clear at the time. Then, when I did my first piece at Mudra in Brussels in 1984, I read more about [John] Cage and Robert Dunn and it became more real. Once I returned to France, I worked with French choreographers Odile Duboc, Hervé Robbe and a few others. In 1995, I said to myself, well STOP with all these projections on my body: I NEED TO SEE what is before THE EVENT /THE SPECTACLE/THE THING. These ideas were very much influenced by my mini-knowledge of the Judson, its radical way of questioning movement, seeing dance through a social lense, its political questions. But little by little, I came to understand that the Judson movement was in part a MYTH because when I began interviewing Trisha Brown in 1992 and met other members of the Judson, I got very different answers to a broad range of questions from each person of the “Judson generation” (Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer…)

My work Múa, performed in complete darkness, raised the questions: What is beyond or before the performance? What should we call dance, music? These were all very JUDSONIAN issues. But I should add that there was also a personal motivation at the root of this: I was divorcing a right-wing Frenchman, a WASP. In fact, I was divorcing my personal milieu, my personal projections. I chose that very year to go to Vietnam for the first time, to understand and discover what came “before” me as my father is from South Vietnam. All you could see on stage at that moment was, in my opinion, determined by the music, the costumes, stories, and worthless/futile virtuosity. Very shortly after, I witnessed the ultimate 80’s dance scene fall apart before my eyes. So Múa was a Judson piece in MY HEAD. But when I interviewed Trisha, I realized for example, that she wasn’t as interested in political questions as I’d thought. Later, meeting Deborah Hay and Lisa Nelson from Grand Union, I was able to understand that, of course, in a generation or a movement or even an aesthetic, there are different ways of being. Like us today. It’s what you call myth, for example, when I met Steve Paxton in 1998 and was faced with what I first understood as his “master” way of behaving, I have to say I was shocked. In my head, I had all these ideas about Judson from what I’d read, such as “the democratic body” that I related to a democratic attitude. But then I thought, well, we each have our own way of understanding or projecting onto a moment in history; it was actually much more simple than I’d thought, not so idealistic, romantic or unified. TH: Yes, well, I think especially in the U.S. when I came on the contemporary scene in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Judson was not influential but for a few of us…

And then it was only when people began to understand that it had somehow been resurrected in France and Europe that people paid attention again in the U.S. So for me it was like a double myth that I have been working through because of course, this idea that France kind of took Judson up again and revived it is also troublesome. I do think that there is a lot of aesthetic pandering that goes on in the name of Judson, no to this and no to that without even thinking, as you say Steve, Trisha, Yvonne they are moving on in different ways, but it is sometimes boring to see how powerful these aesthetic myths can become and the power they wield over the field.

EH: Yes I agree, but it is our artistic responsibility to free ourselves from this power.

TH: I mean what I like about your work is that although it is aware of the radical positions staked out by Judson…the work doesn’t seem to be trying to stand in allegiance to anything but itself. There is for sure a strong visual art component to your work but not necessarily to minimalist precepts.

EH: Well thanks... I started with Múa as a manifesto; this approach continued with my next two pieces, then, I thought, I DON’T WANT TO BE ON A DEFINITIVE AESTHETIC path, it’s too restrictive. People and journalists were already saying “Emmanuelle Huynh is a conceptual, minimalist artist”. In a way yes, it is a way to work; using a set of reductive questions, but I wanted to feel FREE, not be limited by it and if I needed all the "resources" -- fiction, theatrics, pathos, stories, effects on stage BECAUSE A PIECE REQUIRED IT, then, I would use them all! I didn't want to be under any label or category because what we develop needs freedom. This breakthrough was followed by a big misunderstanding when I did Heroes, my first piece in Angers in 2005. For this piece, I used costumes, big sets, rock and roll music, texts, singing, shouting... Aesthetically, it was in total contradiction with what I did before, when I worked on Múa for example, which was minimal (but maximal for the viewer.)

Now, the journalists (critics) who hadn’t supported my “Judson period” were saying they missed my minimalism, they said I was making (flashy) shows with costumes , live music, big sets, brightlights and political texts because I had funding from the National Choreographic Center. But IT WAS BECAUSE THE ISSUES OF THIS PIECE needed this strength, those tools and signals. We needed an excess of lights, noise, to say NO to what was happening in life, in the world (intermittent demonstrations, strikes...). So yes, each piece has its own center of gravity and each project has its own grammar and aesthetic

TH: I think it is time for a re-examination of a kind of post-Judson aesthetics because many of us having been pushing along toward something else yet firmly aware of history...it's not that we need this label but I think the kind of criticality in the field needs something signifying to examine a repositioning of thought and aesthetics today that is different than how Judson aesthetics were incorporated in the 90’s for example

July 22, 2010

TH: So when we last spoke you were speaking about some of the critics’ reaction to heroes and the way they said ..."you now have money and a Choreographic Center...etc." I wonder how having the CNDC [Centre National de Danse Contem- poraine] impacted your aesthetic for you?

EH: Hmmmmm, as I said, I wanted to use all the performance "resources" I could at that moment, as a way of saying NO to something... and I had the financial power to make it happen, for example, smoke on stage, a big set, a rock and roll singer... so I did it because I could do it. I had this piece Heroes in my mind before starting in Angers; it was going to be called A VIDE ENORME / épisode 2 after the first episode with Nuno Bizarro. It was meant to have a large number of performers, with more narratives, more music, songs... When I joined Angers, the struggle between artists/technicians (“les intermittents du spectacle”, as we say in French) and the government had reached its peak, all my responsibilities [as the director of an institution, Centre National de la Danse Contemporaine] led me to show a more political resistance. I wanted to use new found power as a way of demonstrating resistance, to show that I could use the tricks of the theatre, spectacular effects... Some critics just thought: she is "rich" now, she just spends money on fancy stage sets...

And it did have an impact, the institution allowed me to achieve my goals and without any compromises. It was a great experience, as if there was less distance between what was in my head and its realization. Aesthetically, I think it had a bit of the “baroque minimalism” that characterizes my work but maybe with less hesitation.

TH: Do you think this baroque minimalism has impacted the institution. If so, in what way? Impacted or influenced the development or aesthetic philosophies of the CNDC, let's say?

EH: What impacted the CNDC is this idea that the artistic projects provide for all the missions of the CNDC. It means that one idea, for example minimalism, one single artistic project can nurture the requirements of an institution. Or a historical subject can nurture the school, the project I am developing, or the series of lectures for the public. In that way, like in my work, there are some strong/ few topics that feed/ rhizome themselves in the institution.

For example, three years ago, I discovered The Rite of Spring by Nijinsky reconstructed by Kenneth Archer and Milicent Hodson, through Julie Perrin, a dance scholar who was teaching at the school of the CNDC. It informed my work, Le Grand Dehors (2007), a the time, and later, a group work called Cribles (2009). Today, the reconstruction of The Rite of Spring by Dominique Brun is part of the CNDC curriculum. We also developed artistic outreach programs in schools, prisons, hospitals, which was inspired by Cribles.

EH: Do you think that your situation as freelance artist impacts the aesthetic of your artistic work?

TH: It's something I wonder...

Of course much earlier when I had less institutional support, it certainly did because I had to work with much less means and that was a part of the aesthetic and what drew me in some ways to strong minimalist directives, but now I make my work in collaboration with institutions...

and I think I struggle to not let the aesthetic be influenced, even though there are limits to what I can produce and limits economically...I would like to think that even if I had more support the aesthetic would remain the same, but yes, I would use more means and I would have more dancers I think... I want desperately to work with large groups... I recently saw one of Forsythe's early pieces from the early days of the Ballet Frankfurt ... I had never seen his work from this period and it had like, I don’t know, 50 people on stage. It was amazing to see his aesthetic with that kind of machine of support; there are different ways to look at this machine critically, but I think it would be great to have this critical position to interact with at some point. I see how his aesthetic is still very much his, even with that machinery, and that is inspiring... I think as post-Judson artists with new aesthetic propositions, we have learned from the past and we can work with institutions and rethink our strategies and not be daunted by the prospect... I know it is challenging...

It must be day-to-day challenging, but I like the idea of to-ing and fro-ing, going back and forth between letting the institution impact your possibilities and doing the same with the institution... I would like to think even as a freelance artist... I have this possibility.
Would you like to say something to end?

EH: In Cribles, a piece with 11 people, I feel like I could easily work with my “minimal style”, using few tools or means or things/ideas/medium.

TH: Yes, maybe our aesthetics are actually a form of our DNA...

EH: But the power of the 11 dancers, the power of the 6 percussionists is made possible by my position and re-enforce my ideas and aesthetics.

TH: I hope I get to see this piece!!

EH: DNA?`

TH: I don’t know how you say in French... Our genetic makeup... I was making a joke... I don’t mean this in terms of what we inherit from our parents, but in terms of our artistic inheritance that we make for ourselves.

EH: What do you mean?
TH: I mean that yes, no matter what the means...our aesthetic would remain.

EH: Being a post Judson is more an attitude than an aesthetic for me. That is why I feel free to use anything that my project needs.

TH: Yes, sometimes I do think it's like what came first the chicken or the egg...but scientists in England I believe have recently discovered or think the chicken came first.

EH: It is TRUE that a signature remains in all my pieces, even in different contexts, France, foreign countries, institutions, small festivals, the Montpellier Dance Festival, outside, inside, improv- isations, installation pieces....I feel very chicken, Vietnamese chicken let's say!

* The Judson Dance Theater was an informal group of dancers who performed at the Judson Memorial Church in New York between 1962 and 1964. Among them, David Gordon, Simone Forti, Alex and Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Elaine Summers, Trisha Brown, Aileen Passloff, Lucinda Childs... It grew out from the influence of artists such as Anna Halprin, James Waring, Merce Cunningham, and also from Robert Dunn and John Cage. The Judson Dance Theater became a place where soon joined by artists from various fields such as musicians, composers, visual artists such as Yoko Ono, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg... It became the foundation out of which post-modern dance developed over the next two decades in the U.S.

Emmanuelle Huynh studied philosophy and dance. In 1994, she won a grant from the Villa Medicis Foundation for travel to Vietnam to create her solo work Múa, a collaboration with artists from a range of disciplines. Her other choreographic works include Tout contre (1998); Distribution en cours (2000); Bord, tentative pour corps, textes et tables (2001); Numéro (2002); A Vide Enorme/épisode 1 (2003); Heroes (2005); Le Grand Dehors, conte pour aujourd’hui (2007); and Monster Project (2008). In 2009, she created Cribles, a choreographic story for 1,000 dancers, and Shinbaï, the theft of soul, a duet with the Ikebana master Seiho Okudaira. Huynh has served as director of the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine (CNDC), in Angers, France since 2004. 

Trajal Harrell’s choreographic works have been seen at The New Museum, Danspace Project, Dance TheaterWorkshop, The Kitchen, PS122, Art Basel-Miami Beach, The Margulies ArtWarehouse, and internationally in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Mexico. He remains active in many artist-led curatorial and publishing initiatives at Movement Research and Danspace Project; and in 2008 he was appointed as co-artistic mentor for the DanceWeb program at Impulstanz Vienna International Dance Festival. Since 2001, he has been developing a body of work which links the Voguing dance tradition and early Post-modern dance. In this direction, he has created four evening length works: Notes on Less than Zero (2004), Showpony (2007), Quartet for the End of Time (2008), and Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S) (2009). 

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