Response: Lindsey Drury on Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane’s THEM, with a reply from Ishmael
THEM is a smelly, hairy, sweaty dance. Lit like a dank alleyway, danced in saggy tee shirts and scuffed hi-tops, the piece reeked of boy-stank. It had the kind of virility in it I also found as a child in the smell of my brother’s gym socks. The dancing chases itself, enduring its own repetitions in search of some kind of ending, or culmination, or resolution. The dancing uses up what force of will the performer has to give it, and it seems to promise nothing to them except the chance to scream at each other, or at nothing, into the dark. Though I thinkÂ THEM addresses much more than what I extrapolated from it, for me it was a story of how aggression and power compose the parts of our desire, and how we are therefore the carnage of how we love.
THEM has sections, like chapters, each organized carefully in succession. Dennis Cooper’s text drives the performance forward, providing a narrative we don’t see enacted on stage, but which somehow contextualizes the dancing by reminiscing, wondering, remembering. Each time Cooper finished reading, I looked at the dances reflectively, I felt distant and dreamy. Entering each of the performance sections with the doe-eyes of a sentimentalist, the dances acted as a kind of tooth-grinding onslaught of flesh. Its performers began each section, like me, as if unsuspecting bodies. They were placid, pushed unwittingly into a light, into something unsolvable, into their own not knowing. Casual, even gentle or empathetic encounters would develop into a degenerative intimacy. Their relationships toppled into lover’s hatred. They would wrestle each other to the ground as if they needed to crawl inside one another.
Many images rise to the surface of my memory: A man beating a bare mattress with a stick, a series of passing glances which developed into a panicked chase and ended with one boy smashed upon the other against a wall. I remember the repeated act of one man casting the other on to the mattress, and its slow denigration into a violent, toppling act alluding first to violent lust and then to rape. I remember them seeking their pulses in their armpits, necks, crotches. But no image is as memorable as the blindfolded man with a dead goat wrapped around his shoulders, in underwear and a backwards button-up white shirt. He places the goat down on the mattress, strokes it firmly, and then proceeds to accost it with his body, rubbing it, humping it, rolling his head around between its ribs in its hollowed-out abdomen. He sinks his feet into the cut across its neck and pulls it vehemently in two directions. He squeezes its body against the mattress under his weight, folding its limbs against it. For the entirety of the dance with the goat, what is astounding is how the goat simulates aliveness just by enduring such lustful abuse. The goat looks so vulnerable. Its gentle, flaccid head yields to the whims of the man entangled with it. It looks like he is killing it with his desire for it. It looks like he wishes to find his way inside of it. When he finishes, he slumps over it, and the other performers come and cover the two of them with a sheet.
I have little to say aboutÂ THEM as a reconstruction. After speaking briefly with Ishmael, I understand that little changed in the performance of the dance excepting his solo toward the beginning of the performance, and, of course, the passage of time. Of course, the situation surrounding the dance is vastly different now than it was when they developed and presented it between 1984 and 1986. Audiences are vastly familiar with queerness in performance works. Our culture is desensitized enough to the violence of sexuality to have entire TV shows dedicated to it – Law and Order SVU is a particularly pertinent example. And maleness is no longer marginalized in modern or experimental dance (if it ever was). What makes THEM a provocative work of art now, as it was then, rests not in its subject matter or its casting, but instead, with how Houston-Jones and his collaborators have created a work that speaks so bluntly, so casually. Though sincerity is a buzz word in the dance community now, I have to use it. This work is Sincere. The work takes the great risk of exposing its creators for the vulnerable human beings that they are. It makes demons, idiots, victims, children, perpetrators, and artists out ofÂ THEM. It saves itself no face. It is, in the end, pretty simple, pretty fearless, honest without being confessional, and probing without slipping into self-indulgence. The greatest example of this was Ishmael Houston-Jones’s solo. In it, he simply gave us his body, desperately communicating itself in indecipherable gestures, flailing eloquently, inconsolable in its self-awareness. It was beautiful. And haunting.
What I question in the work is why it still depends upon some of its precepts from the 1980s. What was the purpose of the purist reconstruction in the first place? I can’t imagine Houston-Jones as an artist who is seeking to make a history text of himself, especially while he is very much alive. I am curious about 1980s nostalgia as an impetus for this reconstruction. I see our arts community fully arriving at the idea that the 1980s is now Art History (with capital letters), and so should be catalogued appropriately in our institutions and venues. I’m curious too about the all-male cast as a part of that purist reconstruction, and what Houston-Jones would have done in his audition if he had had to address, for example, transgender identities. I question if the piece requires penises to be performed, or simply masculinity. I must admit that from the moment I learned thatÂ THEM would be reconstructed this year, I was annoyed at the casting specifications. Maybe it is simply because I am a member of a vast herd of jobless New York City women dancers and I have observed since childhood the preferential treatment given to male dancers. Boo hoo for me. But seriously, what ifÂ THEM could be women too? What would be lost? What could be gained?
And a resonse from Ishmael Houston-Jones…
Lindz: thanks for your thoughtful comments. It is good to see the piece through another set of intelligent eyes. I particularly appreciated your account of the goat dance. (Though you got a small detail of how it begins wrong, the rest is really on point with our intention.)
[ For the sake of my historical record and archive (haha) the Goat Dance begins with the Man with the Stick coming onstage with the goat on over *his* shoulders, the blindfolded man in underwear, bare feet and a backwards white dress shirt is being led by him to the mattress where 2 men just prior had been having a duet. *The Man with the Stick* tosses the goat onto the mattress, then turns and throws the blindfolded man on top of the goat and watches the dance. He covers them both, man and goat, when it is done, leaving the man’s bare feet exposed.]
I, also, question *why* revivals of work. It came up a lot this spring during the Abramivic retro of re-performances at the MoMA. I also did another re-imagining of a 1980 piece in Philadelphia this winter. You are wrong on one point: I am “an artist who is seeking to make a history text of himself, especially while he is very much alive.” I really care about how my work is seen and that it is seen and remembered. I understand your point. I have Scorcese-envy. No one will ever question another screening of “Taxi Driver’ as valid. The wonderful and terrible thing about live arts, especially dance, is that it happens, it is witnessed and then it is gone. Its ephemeral nature is its strength and its weakness. Without remounting this piece it will have been seen live by just a handful of people in the 80s and then some others on some grainy VHS videos. And some pretty negative reviews to be found in libraries. I think it is an important piece that deserves to be in dialogue with a wider audience than that.
As to the fatihfulness of reconstructing: Dennis, Chris and I had long talks about that. Also with Travis at the New Mu. Because the dance is improvised it will never be the same (as if that is even possible, even in Swan Lake). The music also is responding to the dance. The text is almost completely the same, a few lines were cut for timing and rhythm. But to the core question, the piece was made at a very specific time/place/circumstance and that is what makes THEM, them. To “update” that would be to make an entirely new piece. And if that is what we were doing, why not start from scratch?
This leads to the gender question you pose. I’m likely going to get myself in a lot of trouble here, but here goes. The piece is poetic not didactic, but it is about certain experiences that are male. Dennis was writing about his memories of himself and others as males. The inspiration for the dances was mine (and Jonathan Walker’s and Donald Flemming’s) as male. Surely any number of female and transgendered performers we know could perform the scored improvs of the dance beautifully. But that isn’t the point of view of the piece. Rather than thinking of “penis = requirement” could we look at “never having had a vagina” as a requirement. I do believe that men and women are different. Though men are different from other men and women are different from other women. But beyond those intra-gender differences, men and women are different from the other. Transgendered people further stir up this mix. But a transperson will always have, I think, the body memory of the birth body. There will always be the psychic/emotional memory of years being treated as, responded to, living in the world as the apparent other gender. These are not the memories that Dennis or I have and were dealing with in THEM. Again, that would be another piece. If the piece were inspired by the dances of Norwegian nuns would I be compelled to have African American males in it now? Well maybe I would. But it would alter the piece in a specific way and I, as author, have the right/responsibility to choose how the work is altered.
And for the record: Transgendered people existed before 2001. There were many in our community and were friends and colleagues even in 1986.