134 Rachael Harbert

Born Farmington Hills, MI, 1987 / BS, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit

“What is an artist? A provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one…”

-Federico Fellini

Movement artist Rachael Harbert can be found dancing in that space between the lived and the dreamed. Propelled by nature, relationships, and other earthly things, she works in extremes that point to absurdities within the norm. Exaggerated gestures and surrealist imagery leap out from within her creations. Harbert’s body of work includes site-specific performances, installations, and stage presentations. Each confronts the viewer with urgent meditations on the human condition, and breathes into being the otherwise invisible, intangible, unsociable psyche.

Harbert often produces movement by way of improvisation and collaboration. During a 2014-2015 residency with Spread Art, she curated and performed in Converge (2015), a structured improvisation featuring 23 sound, movement, film, and visual artists. She also worked extensively with fellow artist-in-residence, Marianne Brass, culminating in the duo project “SQUEEZE AND RELEASE”. The pair debuted Selexcerpts (2016) at Spread Art’s white box theater space. It begins with the bare back of a raven-haired dancer. From inside a white hoop skirt, hips undulate like those of a dashboard hula doll. Gradually, the masked dancer turns to face front. His chest is not that of the female body anticipated. Halfway through the evening-length work, the performers execute a not-so-classic kick-line. Deviating from the Radio City Rockette aesthetic, they grunt and contract their torsos forward, highlighting, rather than hiding, the effort required to get a leg up. 

Atrophy (2016 – 2017) celebrates Earth’s seasonal offerings of birth, growth, ripeness, and rot. The series echoes Harbert’s fascination with nature. Much of her childhood was spent in solitude, on a sprawling acre of land, watching plants and insects breed and decay. Atrophy was conceived in four parts in collaboration with Trista Dymond. They premiered Summer at Sidewalk Festival, Fall and Winter at Spread Art, and Spring at Grand on River. In each installation, participants are invited to build and dismantle a landscape using the materials of life itself: blooming branches, moss, and abandoned bird’s nests, flowers and pumpkins, stones, and wreaths. As people choose to build upon a neighbor’s vision, or wipe it clean, the tangible impact we make on our habitat is revealed, and the nature of community unfolds in real time. 

Enlightened Discharge v.2.0 (“SQUEEZE AND RELEASE,” 2018), takes a meta-look at dance, questioning its purpose, and for whom it is made. It begins the way a lounge party might. Guests enter through an alley and check in with a bouncer. Underwhelming hors d’oeuvres are served. A rack of hoarded costumes encourages people to dress up, inviting the audience to question what it means to perform for others. Enter the “entertainers,” with an exaggerated parody of recognizable dance steps, collecting the pennies thrown at them. One dancer dressed in white smashes herself with tomatoes, anticipating the judgement of the room. The others return with cleaning supplies, trying to erase the evidence of a self-destructive act. Enlightened Discharge satirizes aspects of traditional dance, while demonstrating its effectiveness as a mirror to society. 

As a child, Harbert was aware of mental and physical illness in those close to her. Early exposure to the mind’s vulnerability continues to inform some of her darker subject matter. She created When Is A Door Not A Door (2018), while caring for her grandmother, who battled both lymphoma and dementia. In this piece, a woman in water boots balances atop an inflated air mattress. Her face is buried in a book titled How to Stay Afloat.  In front of her, a dancer spins with maniacal momentum, hair flowing wild, releasing a primal scream into the whirl. Abruptly lucid, she knocks the self-help book from the reader’s grip. A beat. The dancer guides the reader off of the mattress, and gently releases her into the wings, out of sight. A performer sings, “Memory… I can dream of the old days. Life was beautiful thenLyrics from the Andrew Lloyd Webber song that Harbert played to coax her grandmother into getting out of bed. A song that her grandmother sang with enthusiasm. 

In a period of oversaturated information and sensationalized newsfeeds, Harbert’s body of work reminds us not to lose sight of life’s core experiences. Her performances leave the viewer with a sense that an honest exploration within may well be the most unpredictable adventure of our lives.

Leah O’Donnell, January 2020

Copyright Essay’d 2020