You always remember the moment when a choreographer winds their steps around your heart. I took a bit to catch up with the American dance-maker Trajal Harrell, but when I saw Maggie the Cat at the Manchester international festival in 2019, I was entranced by its swaggering wit as it imagined the servants in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof staging a fashion show with household objects to assert their power.
Now the show, as vivid and life-enhancing as ever, concludes a trilogy about strong women, previewing at this year’s Holland festival. The middle section, O Medea, is on film and oddly distancing; the opening piece, Deathbed, however, a cross between art installation and performance, is a work of profound emotion.
Harrell weaves long phrases that become great coils of ineffable feeling
Harrell has invented a highly textured ritual of remembrance for a dying person, a palimpsest created from an odd assortment of objects associated with their (imagined) life and repeated patterns of movement set to a mainly mournful score whose ingredients range from a haunting version of Landslide sung by Anohni to gospel laments and Julius Drake’s setting of Shakespeare’s Come Away, Death.
The steps look simple – slow slides, little hops, tilted shoulders, tiptoed walks – but their effect is complex. Harrell, who occasionally steps up from the audience to perform, gradually weaves long phrases that become great coils of ineffable feeling. There’s something incredibly moving in the way the freedom of the dance rubs against the sadness of the sound.
The dancers are the definition of diverse, everyone with an individual way of moving that lends added power to their collective endeavours. Their concentration as they fulfil each task, dressing up in a wild variety of clothes, gently buildings altars of remembrance, is extraordinary.
At the close, they load one dancer with silky garments until he is entirely shrouded. As his body is carried off stage, in a final procession, I wasn’t the only member of the audience in tears. I hope someone brings the piece to the UK very soon: it deserves to be widely seen.