With the house lights still raised, renowned American dancer and choreographer Trajal Harrell stands downstage left, just across from two lines of slick, black piano stools. Wearing a white shirt and black trousers, as well as a frilly, floral dress that is hung around his neck, Harrell waits calmly and patiently as audience members clumsily try to find their allotted seats, smiling and nodding at people who catch his eye. At one point, he reaches into his pocket and grabs a tissue to wipe some sweat off his nose.
After a lot of hustle and bustle and people rushing in at the last minute—one man even waves at Harrell on stage, making me think the kerfuffle in the auditorium is part of the performance—the atmosphere settles and a track by Joni Mitchell starts playing. Harrell begins to transfer his weight from foot to foot, swinging and swaying as he carves his arms through space, his hands at times twitching and flickering. While observed by a packed theatre, it’s a very intimate, and almost religious moment. Harrell’s eyes are closed and he gently mouths the lyrics to the song, looking almost like a gospel singer losing themselves in the emotion of a particularly touching hymn.
This is the opening of “The Köln Concert” (2020). The first piece Harrell choreographed for the recently formed Schauspielhaus Zürich Dance Ensemble, it aims to interpret American pianist and composer Keith Jarrett’s legendary improvised piano recording of the same name, which we hear after the selection of Mitchell songs Harrell chose to start with to fulfil his fantasy of the Canadian singer-songwriter opening for Jarrett.
Not based around a narrative or a strong theme, “The Köln Concert” instead showcases a unique movement language that references the many dance styles that have influenced Harrell over the course of his career: voguing, post-modern dance—Harrell rose to prominence with his series of works “Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church,” which asked the question: “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the Voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?”—and the Japanese dance theatre form Butoh. It’s a unique combination that Harrell has honed over many years, and one that he strived to imbue in the bodies of his six fellow performers who gradually join him on stage after his opening solo.
The dancers do not merely try to emulate Harrell’s style of moving, however. Instead, they absorb and interpret it in their own unique ways. As a result, while they are united in by the same approach and intention in “The Köln Concert,” they are completely individual in its execution. To Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” they strut in curved pathways with nonchalant, idiosyncratic swaggers, strike poses with a quiet confidence, flourish their hands, and spin on the balls of their feet to change direction. Each time they exit and re-enter the stage, they change outfits in order to exhibit an array of denim jackets adorned with ribbons, oversized fur coats, and velvet robes that appear to influence the way they inhabit their bodies.
There is a notable lack of interaction between the onstage performers, an element of the piece that doubtlessly arose from the fact it was created when Covid-19 distancing restrictions were still in place. It feels like the dancers have a stronger relationship with the audience than their castmates, as they play with many of the relational possibilities between performer and spectator throughout the show’s duration. They switch between observing their onlookers warily, staring at them pleadingly, and gazing at them warm and welcomingly. At times, they are confrontational as they prowl around the stage like proud lions and lionesses.
After multiple outfit changes, the entire cast dons chic, sheer black dresses that are draped effortlessly across their bodies in different ways. Finding seats on the piano stools that have now been arranged into a semi circle, one by one they rise up as if inspired by the muses to perform contrasting solos. While one performer stumbles and trips in a distorted walking motion, others defiantly slap their thighs, flash their buttocks, and shake, sweat, and outstretch their arms as if pleading.
While not stated as a theme, as I watch this section I can’t help but imagine it’s an extremely fashionable funeral: through their solos, it’s as if each dancer is demonstrating their individual way of coping with grief. This impression is aided by the intense stillness of the cast when they’re not performing. Instead of watching their castmates, they sit and stare eerily into the distance like a group of melancholic mourners. Harrell himself is particularly arresting in these moments: his eyes glaze over as if he’s retreating deeper and deeper inside his inner world. Presumably, he’s utilising his experience with Butoh, which he told me in a 2019 interview is associated with “death, decay, and loneliness.”
Towards the end of the piece, things become slightly more joyful. The cast form a wide, celebratory circle and begin to process in an anti-clockwise pathway. At regular intervals, they pause, assuming positions like Greek sculptures—Harrell has frequently worked with and referenced Greek mythology and literature throughout his oeuvre—while the most downstage dancer takes an uninterrupted moment to deliver a final solo. This democratic formula is repeated until each performer has taken their turn, after which the circle unravels into a line where the group sinks into a collective, submissive bow.
It’s difficult to determine what Harrell wants us to take away from “The Köln Concert.” While the programme note paints it merely as a choreographic ode to works by two iconic musicians, to me, there’s something more there. Its egalitarian approach to choreography, and the way in which it gives each performer the space to be themselves, leaves me thinking about the beauty in difference and finding unity and cohesion in opposing elements. These are topics that will always be relevant both on and off the stage.