In darkness, a live, punk-influenced sound score saturates a converted sixty-nine-seat black box theater in New York’s Lower East Side. The source: electric guitarist Chris Cochrane positioned upstage right.1 Upstage left, a spotlight illuminates two young male dancers from above. One sits in a chair and the other kneels, dressing bandages on the first dancer’s right knee. They wear cool-colored tank tops, loose-fitting khaki pants, and sneakers. Writer Dennis Cooper recites a text in an uninflected monotone alongside the dancers’ initial movements, cuing the piece’s sociopolitical implications:
I saw them once. I don’t know when, or who they were because they were too far away. But I remember things, like what they wore, which wasn’t anything special—pants, shirts, regular colors—stuff I’ve seen thousands of times since.
I wanted them to know something. I cupped my hands around my mouth and thought about yelling out. But they wouldn’t have heard me. Besides, I didn’t belong there.2
This opening scene sets the stage for Ishmael Houston-Jones’s THEM, an improvised composition at the intersection of physical risk and social exclusion. Conceived in 1985, THEM premiered at Performance Space 122 in 1986 at a moment when the AIDS epidemic was approaching its tipping point in U.S. public consciousness.3 The dance is a collaborative, multimedia work comprised primarily of a contact improvisation score danced by Houston-Jones, Donald Fleming, Daniel Macintosh, Julyen Hamilton, Barry Crooks, and David Zambrano. Contact improvisation is a movement vocabulary developed in the 1970s in which spontaneous points of physical contact between participants are the central composition element. It can be free form or take the shape of a score—a set of instructions or prompts that encourages structured yet open, fluid movement and exploration, the outcome of which is not predetermined. Contact improvisation scores can be simple or complex and often involve grazing, colliding, sharing weight, or other points of contact between participants.
According to dancer and scholar Cynthia J. Novack, the origins of contact improvisation coincide with and draw from liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. In her definitive anthropological account of the technique, Novack writes,
Many of the early participants, audience members, and critics felt that the movement structure of contact improvisation literally embodied the social ideologies of the early ’70s, which rejected traditional gender roles and social hierarchies. They viewed the experience of touching and sharing weight with a partner of either sex and any size as a way of constructing a new experience of the self interacting with another person. [Its form] represented spontaneity in life, a literal ‘going with the flow’ of events, just as the dancers followed the flow of their physical contact.4
For Novack, contact improvisation developed out of a distinctly social concern with particular attention to gender difference, which also had implications for the dance world. In addition to animating the spirit of free love and the anti-establishment sentiment that proliferated in early 1970s America, contact improvisation gave participants the tools to dismantle the heteronormative gender codes that constrained classical ballet and modern dance partnering, allowing them to simply go with the flow.5
But which bodies are permitted to experience and enact such freedoms? The force of THEM pivots on this question, extending and recoding the contested democratic language of contact improvisation. In the 1980s, gay men were engaged in risky business, at least according to media reports. AIDS was on the rise, and homosexual men were the fall guys. The political gains and rewards of visibility that flourished in the period after the Stonewall Riots came to an abrupt halt in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the media’s explicit wedding of AIDS, homosexuality, and an attendant narrative of irresponsibility and promiscuity.6 Moreover, discussions concerning racial difference and the impact of AIDS on communities of color were lacking, particularly in contrast to the overwhelming whiteness of AIDS activism and the modern dance world. THEM is located here, bringing into view a unique politics of difference at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and performance—a crisis beyond love. For what began as a coming-of-age story about gay men and same-sex intimacy quickly became much more: a container of coded allusions to AIDS and the dance world’s racial makeup. With each move, the dancing bodies in THEM spontaneously and strategically respond to seemingly hopeless conditions against a backdrop of fear, dystopia, and sociopolitical urgency. Consequently, THEM mediates one of the cornerstones of contemporary culture: the fraught terrain of identity politics, its limits and its horizons.7
The Cultural Politics of Contact Improvisation
Dancer Steve Paxton is credited with inventing contact improvisation in January 1972, when Paxton and eleven male students from Oberlin College repeatedly crashed into each other, falling, rolling, and recovering with reckless abandon in a piece titled Magnesium.8 Contact improvisation offered Paxton and fellow Judson Group and Grand Union members with whom he developed the technique a way to “participate equally, without employing arbitrary social hierarchies in [a] group.”9 These early movement experiments, especially the act of falling, engendered danger, thrill, abandon, and most notably chance and choice. Novack explains:
Especially during the early years of contact improvisation, the form really was dangerous because no one knew what might happen; dancers were trying to discover the possibilities for the action of two bodies flinging somewhat uncontrollably through space together … Contact improvisation … emphasizes the wildness and awkwardness of falling, relying on conditioned or reflexive controls and strategies rather than on choreographed movement.10
Learning techniques of falling and disorientation enabled dancers to respond quickly to imposed, yet extreme and dangerous situations; improvising yielded simultaneous feelings of control and freedom.
The AIDS crisis of the 1980s tested the promise of contact improvisation and its affects, a phenomenon THEM implicitly addresses. Along with the rest of the globe, AIDS shook the dance world and complicated contact improvisation’s intense focus on the physical body. During a time when kissing, touching, or simply acknowledging one’s gay lover in public was a matter of life and death, THEM put intense male-to-male contact front and center, contesting normative ideas concerning ability and disability, aesthetic beauty and disease. The piece also calls into question the technique’s loose democratic frame. To put it plainly, the stakes were higher, the risks greater. Consequently, contact improvisation’s radical departure from prescribed norms took on new meaning. The improvising yet composed bodies in THEM—marked by sexual difference and a phobic projection of disease—were no longer merely aesthetic bodies. They were political actors.
Along these lines, THEM is a turning point in Ishmael Houston-Jones’s early career of making dances. In the mid-1970s, Houston-Jones left Gannon College to live in Israel and a number of European countries for a year. Upon returning to the U.S., he traded his birth name, Chuck, for Ishmael and took up residence in Philadelphia, about 100 miles east of his birthplace, Harrisburg. During this time, Houston-Jones traveled between New York and Philadelphia, drawn to each city’s alternative, independent performance scenes. He took dance and theater classes at Temple University and worked with the Philadelphia-based movement collective, Group Motion Media Theater. Soon, Group Motion’s multi-rule generated improvisation—a task-oriented composition method that structures how and when dancers move and make choreographic decisions—became too constraining for him. In 1974, Houston-Jones formed a pick-up ensemble with composer Jeff Cain and dancer Terry Fox who trained with Yvonne Rainer and would later direct Danspace Project.11 The group was called A Way of Improvising. In 1976, Houston-Jones formed another loosely organized performance ensemble with Michael Biello and Dan Martin named Two Men Dancing (an improvisation on their maleness). Shortly afterward, Houston-Jones saw Trisha Brown perform Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor (1978) and started using text with movement.
Dance studies scholar Susan Leigh Foster describes Brown’s innovative use of text in Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor (1978).12 She writes,
Although the spliced stories [the spoken text of two memories that Brown recounts] give a clue about the structure of the choreography, Brown does not switch stories when she changes from one phrase to another. Instead, the talking, frequently suspended by differing durations, interfaces unpredictably with each phrase … The talking makes the dancing all the more opaque, impermeable, and inaccessible to language, and the dancing reflects the talking as more conversational and quotidian.13
The radical juxtaposition of text and dance in Brown’s performance—the indeterminacy of when and how recited phrases would (or would not) sync up to movement phrases, the pauses and moments of suspension, and the collisions between word and dancing image—profoundly impacted Houston-Jones’s compositional approach at the time. He recounts, “I started using texts with my dance around the time I saw Trisha Brown do her talking piece, Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor. That’s not something I would ever do, but I like seeing her keep two stories and two dances going at the same time, switching back and forth.”14 Though Houston-Jones admits that Brown’s piece was different from anything he would go on to make, her work inspired him to experiment with the formal possibilities of self-generated movement and sound. Spoken text became a central feature of his dance-making practice, and in November 1979, Houston-Jones moved to New York.15
Two years later, Ronald Reagan began a two-term presidency that prompted a disturbingly neoconservative U.S. political regime. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control reported the first cases of AIDS in the U.S., and the second episode of Live Boys premiered at P.S. 122.16 A piece comprised of three episodes that performance artist Tim Miller made with John Bernd, a dancer and Miller’s lover at the time, Live Boys poetically documents the evolution of Miller and Bernd’s relationship. The first episode premiered at P.S. 122 in November 1980 as part of Men Together, a queer performance festival; the second episode in March 1981; and the final episode in August 1981. Bernd’s speech about his skin outbreaks in Live Boys is the first reference to AIDS in theater.17
Between the second and final episodes of Live Boys, Ishmael Houston-Jones performed D E A D for his thirtieth birthday, a piece set to a pre-recorded soundtrack of the artist’s voice reciting the names of every death, real or imagined, that he can remember having happened in his lifetime.18 The sound score includes pauses to allow for memory lapses. Upon hearing a name that resonates with him, Houston-Jones “fall[s] down to the floor in some emblematic way and tr[ies] to rise again before the next name is called.”19
Houston-Jones’s repeated falling alongside the recorded list of names—JFK, Fred Hampton, Larry’s dog, Superman, a random collection of political leaders, celebrities, friends, and pets—becomes more expressive as the dance goes on.20 The sense of weight and gravity, the sudden, bounded effort of the movement, and the cyclical actions of fall and recovery animate a list of their own meanings: to drop, freely or intentionally; to lose, lessen, release, or submit; to be cast down; to be conquered or captured; to experience defeat or ruin; or to give in to pleasure or temptation. But one meaning is never completely resolved: to come to rest, to settle. According to the score, Houston-Jones must keep moving and falling “until the dance is over,” allowing himself “to become exhausted with the effort,” leaving the viewer with an ambiguous ending that resists resolution.21 In so doing, he enacts an ever-becoming, ever-changing condition of being.22
In D E A D, Houston-Jones brings his physical self into relation with a disenchanting world, and his dancing enacts a strange process of becoming. Through recorded sound and live, improvised movement, he demonstrates how the body is intimately tied to identity construction. But rather than a stable, unchanging self, Houston-Jones is never settled and always in motion. In effect, processes of identity expression are made, undone, and remade with each movement through Houston-Jones’s repeated falling near the point of exhaustion.
Dancing in a Time of AIDS
Houston-Jones further explores questions of selfhood in THEM. In video documentation from the November 29, 1986 performance at P.S. 122, Cooper’s monotonous recitation reflects the staged yet mundane scene. The lack of affect in his voice mirrors the ordinariness of his subjects’ dress, actions, and blank facial expressions while the first seven lines of text establish broad compositional motifs: isolation and belonging, insider-outsider and male-to-male relations within and beyond love, and the impulse to know and see. Alternately, Houston-Jones’s deployment of contact improvisation constitutes a bold act, a movement strategy and way of making sense of the sociopolitical conditions of the time. In THEM, the fear of contamination, the presence of loss, shifting definitions of love and intimacy, the exposure to danger, and the embrace of not knowing the outcome of a particular movement—danced and political—all come into contact with one another.
An overhead spotlight illuminates a solo male dancer center stage. He drops to his knees and executes a series of simple, bounded, weighted gestures.23 He turns away from the audience and steps slightly upstage, just out of the spotlight’s cascading light. He turns again to face the audience, his face now cloaked by darkness. He gently holds his left forearm as he bends at the waist and looks left. He repeats the action, this time placing his hand at the center of his chest.
A pair of dancers under another overhead spotlight, positioned downstage right, comes into view as Cooper’s recitation ends and the other two spotlights fade. The arrangement of dancers and spotlights compose an evenly spaced diagonal line that the camera pans, capturing the dancers’ opening tableaux. The camera travels along the line of bodies from upstage to center, finally settling on the downstage pair of dancers, one of whom is Houston-Jones. Both dancers face upstage with their backs to the audience. They begin a duet, moving in close proximity but not touching or looking directly at each other as they orbit one another. They seem to follow each other, and their bodies abruptly collapse at various points; they fall, fold, and bend to initiate circular, fluid phrases comprised of arm and leg extensions. The dancers draw closer together like two magnets. They pause. Their shoulders touch. They share weight as they lean into one another, still not looking into each other’s faces. Suddenly, the fluid, sustained energy shifts and becomes more intense and direct. The dancers’ bodies engage in a game of attraction and repulsion. As the movements grow more violent, Houston-Jones attempts to escape his partner’s contact. The other dancer desperately reaches and falls as Houston-Jones quickly sidesteps his embrace. Houston-Jones exits while his partner remains onstage dancing alone. The remaining dancer’s movements become introspective as he takes in his solitude, seemingly unaware of Man with Stick who has entered stage right to watch until the lone dancer finally exits.
After the opening duet, Cooper recites more text, this time in the form of two lists, “Dead Friends” and “Bedded Friends.” Cooper’s “Friends” lists follow a similar order: name, age, and a scenario of encounter. But there is a fourth component to each of these lists: a variable, a tag. In “Dead Friends,” the tag is the moment Cooper’s subjects meet their unfortunate demise—moments of death, mostly suicides, fueled by desire. In “Bedded Friends,” a semi-autobiographical text about the author’s hook-ups in Los Angeles’s queer underground, the tag is a moment of intimacy, a sex act also fueled by desire. The rhetorical forms of these lists produce three distinct results.
First, Cooper’s lists of names and situations recognize, or, more appropriately, memorialize the experience of lives lost as well as encounters stifled by 1980s homophobia. With every word that comes and goes, Cooper’s list anticipates another project of memory: The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt established in 1987 a year after THEM premiered at P.S. 122. As a dance work responding to AIDS just before the global demand for effective, formally organized efforts to confront the epidemic reached a critical mass, THEM stands at the threshold of AIDS activism. Though THEM predates The NAMES Project and does not openly serve as a memorial, it seeks to make visible a number of suppressed issues particular to queer communities in the 1980s: same-sex love between men, high-risk behaviors, and the emotional and physical impact of the AIDS epidemic. For these reasons, the intense, often violent yet sensual and empathic demands of contact improvisation lend themselves well to THEM’s subject matter.
Secondly, in both D E A D and THEM, the list appears as an independent form that runs parallel to the dancers’ movements; word image and dancing image collide and intersect at unexpected points much like the surfaces of the dancing bodies engaged in the piece’s contact improvisation score. The list is generic, standard in its line-by-line organization of information. It is uninflected, like the dancers’ faces in THEM, straightforward and direct. Yet the content that fills the lists is affectively charged, thereby squaring the relation between content and form. Text and movement mirror each other in their simultaneous expressiveness and inexpressiveness. In THEM, text and movement map grief and loss; page becomes stage and vice versa.
Thirdly, both of Cooper’s “Friends” lists elaborate a libidinal subtext that subtends THEM, which the dancers animate as the piece continues. In low blue lighting, Man with Stick repeatedly swings a slat of wood at a small piece of metal. “Dead Friends” runs parallel with Cochrane’s persistently disparate guitar drones as Man with Stick oscillates between hitting and missing while the metal piece at which he swings either ricochets or falls to the ground. Suddenly the stage explodes with bursts of white light and cacophonous music to mimic the controlled chaos of the contact improvisation score, engulfing dancers as well as the audience as the dancers scatter across the stage. Next, five dancers appear downstage, crouching and shrinking, surfing over each other, sharing weight, counterbalancing, and changing partners to Cooper’s “Bedded Friends.” As “Bedded Friends” concludes, duets morph into ensemble contact improvisation before dancers again split into two duets.
Departing from the list motif, the latter half of THEM features a succession of progressively violent sequences. A dancer repeatedly beats a dusty old mattress with Man with Stick’s slat of wood, shifting the mattress ever so slightly downstage with every punishing strike. Two men moving upstage and downstage along parallel pathways increase the speed at which they cut through space, building to a run that eventually results in a violent collision; they smack each other into the theater’s back stage wall. Then, another pair of dancers engages in a push-pull duet in which they tenderly embrace, reject one another, and then embrace again. These sections underscore the physical and emotional violence endured by people living with AIDS in a post-Stonewall era. On this phenomenon, art historian Douglas Crimp writes, “The violence we encounter is relentless, the violence of silence and omission almost as impossible to endure as the violence of unleashed hatred and outright murder. Because this violence also desecrates the memories of our dead, we rise in anger to vindicate them. For many of us, mourning becomes militancy.”24
Houston-Jones’s scores, movements, and thoughts echo Crimp’s proclamations. In a 1987 issue of Performing Arts Journal, the dancer-choreographer declares, “In THEM, especially, I was working out parts of myself, working out fears of disease, violence, and death, trying to find a way of dealing with those issues for myself.”25 For Houston-Jones, this investigation of fear and loss sometimes took on grotesque dimensions. In a controversial sequence near the end of THEM, Houston-Jones performs a masturbatory duet with the gutted carcass of a freshly slaughtered goat.26 Houston-Jones, blindfolded, is led onstage and thrown onto the mattress, the site of several preceding instances of physical and sexual violence. He wears a pair of white boxers and white socks, and his body is wrapped in strips of white medical gauze tape. At the moment the goat’s gutted body is thrown onto the mattress to meet Houston-Jones, harsh red light soaks the stage. In an act of libidinal angst, Houston-Jones arches back, jerks, desperately clutches the goat’s listless body, and aggressively wrestles the animal’s gutted carcass to the mattress. When Houston-Jones “climaxes,” he collapses onto the mattress with the goat, his relaxed body rising and falling to simulate physical and emotional fatigue after the moment of “orgasmic” release. Here, the goat’s limp body takes the form of a lifeless lover, a ghostly proxy, immobile and incapable of response. The danger in Houston-Jones’s dancing with a rotting animal joins in symbolic union with lived experiences of physical risk and emotional ruin—feelings of attachment (or detachment) that come with losing loved ones to disease and death.
Houston-Jones describes this section as an AIDS coda, a “nightmare sequence,” and the duet stands as a pivotal marker in the landscape of gay desire before and after the emergence of AIDS.27 Houston-Jones remembers, “This coda was quite controversial in the gay press and the New York Native panned the piece.”28 For Houston-Jones, “The mattress and animal carcass were a sort of acknowledgment of AIDS. People were dying—friends, people we knew. There was panic.”29 By putting this panic in motion in THEM, Houston-Jones makes space for him and his dancers to embody danger, fear, and risk at a time when gay men were themselves at risk. Furthermore, in addition to his early contributions to postmodern dance (the use of the mattress places him firmly within post-Judson traditions), Houston-Jones’s work was also part of a surge of alternative, transgressive responses to social and political upheaval in the U.S. and abroad.30
The Subject and Subtext of Race
THEM was conceived the year after Houston-Jones completed his second trip to Nicaragua where he taught contact improvisation as a way to mobilize opposition on and between bodies within shared space. Here for Houston-Jones, contact improvisation became a mode of resistance in the studio and on the ground for those involved in armed conflict, what Susan Leigh Foster calls “choreographies of protest.”31 In her 2003 essay of the same name, Foster considers the role of performance within a lineage of nonviolent protest.32 Her analysis offers a compelling view of individual agency and collective action by showing how bodies articulate choices based on their intelligent assessment of other bodies in space. In so doing, she calls attention to how certain historical events and environments shape and form movements—ideological and corporeal. She also highlights how bodies-in-motion and bodies-in-relation conversely shape and inform histories of protest. Indeed, bodies choreograph and are choreographed by engagements with various politically charged arenas. By approaching protest as a form of performance and vice versa, Foster troubles the distinction “between symbolic action and physical intervention by approaching the body as a vast reservoir of signs and symbols, by envisioning the body as capable of both persuasion and obstinate recalcitrance … the physical body does and can create interference.”33 In this way, choreography becomes a crucial site in the production of meaning and, perhaps, an embodiment of relief, albeit a state of being that is always in flux. The rehearsal of specific procedures—going limp as a means of protection against police batons or abruptly dropping to the ground to enact the physical, fatal effects of poor disease prevention and stigmatization—ready the body to react, survive, and improvise in unexpected conditions. Following Houston-Jones’s involvement in Nicaragua and his use of contact improvisation as a practice of political protest in the 1980s, THEM can also be seen as an intervention of sorts, one that exceeds a focus on AIDS and gay male relations.
Much of the literature on THEM locates its conceptual and formal radicality firmly in the discourse about the AIDS crisis in 1980s Manhattan. But I believe dance critic Burt Supree had it right when he wrote, “THEM isn’t a piece about AIDS, but AIDS constricts its view and casts a considerable pall. It’s a loosely organized work about some ways men are with men—physically, sexually, emotionally.”34 That is, though THEM ostensibly became about AIDS—for Houston-Jones, for New York City’s downtown dance community, and for critics later revisiting the work—the piece offers much more, from its construction, subject matter, and form to the ephemera that precipitates the life world of the dance.35
The postcard announcing THEM’s November 1986 performances at P.S. 122 features five male dancers.36 Against a white wall, they face away from the camera with their shirtless torsos exposed and heads tilted slightly up and back. Houston-Jones is foremost and center, simultaneously ahead of and behind the group as a result of how the dancers’ bodies are arranged and oriented toward the camera. His dark brown body stands in contradistinction to the nearby pale bodies; his lone blackness is surrounded by whiteness on all sides. Of his work in the 1980s, Houston-Jones remarks, “a lot of my work has to do with invisibility—hiding identity to survive artistically, or revealing identity to be subversive artistically. I try to subvert invisibility through performance—to bring what’s invisible out into the open. As a black man in mostly white downtown performance, I became fascinated with the idea of invisibility.”37 The promotional image for THEM underscores contact improvisation’s field of exclusion and Houston-Jones’s unsettling encounters with whiteness within and beyond the dance world. This experience led the dancer-choreographer to not only create but to also curate work at the intersection of sexual and racial difference.38
In 1982, Houston-Jones invited a handful of black choreographers experimenting with new and revised movement vocabularies to show work as part of “Parallels” at Danspace Project in New York. The “Parallels” program was meant to question and expand categories of black dance, moving away from the then pervasive and monopolizing repertory of Alvin Ailey. Houston-Jones, who reprised “Parallels” in February 2012 as part of Danspace Project’s Platform series, sought to showcase, indeed provide a platform for black dancemakers working outside big mainstream venues and popular black dance conventions of the time. Reflecting on the first iteration of “Parallels,” Houston-Jones states,
What I think I meant when I approached Cynthia Hedstrom [to propose the original “Parallels” program in 1982], was that as a Black dance maker, I didn’t feel the same spiritual connection with Alvin Ailey that I did with many graffiti artists, or punk musicians, or people dancing at the Palladium and the Pyramid Clubs or b-boys and girls break dancing on cardboard in the streets, or those bizarre New Wave Drag performers or even people doing contact improvisation … aesthetically what I wanted to make and perform was as far away from those classics [Ailey’s Cry and Revelations] as were Giselle or Les Sylphide. So … ‘I chose the name Parallels for the series because while all the choreographers participating are Black and in some ways relate to the rich tradition of Afro-American dance, each has chosen a form outside of that tradition and even outside the tradition of mainstream modern dance.’39
With “Parallels” and other interventions, Houston-Jones and his colleagues radicalized the aesthetic possibilities for black dancers and choreographers. Most importantly, “Parallels” made room for a range of black perspectives within the predominantly white avant-garde dance and theater scenes of downtown Manhattan and elsewhere. In 1987, “Parallels,” renamed “Parallels in Black,” traveled to Geneva, London, and the American Center in Paris. Choreographers included Ralph Lemon, Blondell Cummings, Gus Solomons, Jr., Fred Holland, Jawolle Willa Jo Zollar, Rrata Christine Jones, Harry Whittaker Sheppard, and Bebe Miller.40
In 1983, extending the bridge between postmodern dance and black identity expression first explored in “Parallels,” Houston-Jones performed Babble: First Impressions of the White Man, a work that directly engaged the cultural politics of invisibility and racial difference. Babble was the first of many of Houston-Jones’s collaborations with filmmaker Fred Holland. In 1984, Houston-Jones teamed up with Holland again for Cowboys, Dreams, and Ladders, which centered on the figure of the black cowboy as a response to the exclusionary sphere of ideals pertaining to the American West. Dance critic Nancy Goldner describes a 1986 performance of Cowboys, Dreams, and Ladders in Philadelphia:
Cowboys, Dreams and Ladders first took shape in the early ‘80s when Houston-Jones and Holland attended an unusual rodeo, staged by a group of black cowboys on the streets of the Bronx. The sight inspired them to begin to research the roles of blacks in the West, and to discover that, even though many western towns had black populations after the Civil War, ‘the icon of the cowboy’—the popular conception of the figure—‘excludes blacks.’ In the same way, Houston-Jones says, the icon of the post-modern choreographer also excludes blacks. ‘Black and avant-garde are not seen as compatible in the art scene,’ he says. ‘Cowboys, Dreams and Ladders is about how it feels to be invisible, to be a cowboy and to be avant-garde.’41
Following Cowboys, Dreams, and Ladders, Houston-Jones continued to interrogate the fraught relation between black bodies, avant-garde aesthetics, and the social expectations attached to both. In Adolfo und Maria, for example, Houston-Jones developed a choreographic narrative constructed around a troupe of minstrels performing in what he imagined to be the cabarets of pre-WWII Germany. The piece’s multiethnic cast wore blackface and performed short vignettes of topical political satire. The larger production of Adolf und Maria was a burlesque about the German choreographer Mary Wigman and her dubious connection to Hitler, which culminated in her choreographing the 1936 Olympics opening ceremony.
Adolf und Maria was made the same year as THEM, and it is clear that the visual politics of race, gender, and sexuality motivate Houston-Jones’s approach to both works. But where blackface is the vehicle for racial performance in Adolf und Maria, Houston-Jones’s solitary, phenotypically black body in THEM dances among and against his white male counterparts. Given this, it is hard not to see racial difference as part of THEM’s conceptualization, though the piece’s racial valences are rarely discussed.42 As dance scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz notes, “The work operates differently from the richly-detailed postmodern dances of the early 1980s, dances like those of Garth Fagan or Bill T. Jones, that explored order and predetermined gesture created with compositional scrutiny … Most important,” he continues, “the work utilizes CI [contact improvisation] to tell a story of queer sexuality and abjection, a story that is concerned with age and location, and in some ways, race.”43 Indeed the bodies in THEM experience and enact various forms of mobility and marginalization. They collide and yield, writhe in pain and pleasure, and at times their intense, frenetic movements—performed in close contact and apart—mark them as diseased, repulsive others. The dance, in effect, elaborates the distance between normalcy and difference, “a normalcy that [gay people] were never granted in the first place,” to use Crimp’s words.44 Houston-Jones’s black dancing body in relation to the other dancers is of particular import here because in the piece’s final sequence, it is the site where sexual otherness meets racial otherness.
The four white male dancers on stage—all barefoot, some bare-chested—face the audience. One dancer lifts his right arm and presses the soft fleshy gland space of his armpit. Another dancer checks his groin area, then his neck. The dancers repeatedly, frantically, examine their own bodies. Crucially, Houston-Jones’s exposed and bound black body is center stage, lying on the dusty old mattress covered by a white bed sheet. He is at once present and absent, a specter of the sexual and racial other. Man with Stick enters upstage left and clutches the dancer positioned in front of him who has been vigorously brushing himself in a kind of cleansing action, anxiously searching the perimeter of his kinesphere, grasping at the air. Man with Stick picks him up, flings him in the air, and violently wrestles the dancer to the ground. The spotlight above the dancer goes dark, marking his death.
Crossing the stage to claim his next victim, Man with Stick rips a dancer from the arms of his partner. They battle over his body, wrenching the dancer back and forth. Man with Stick finally wins, forcing the dancer to the ground. He slowly moves toward the last dancer standing whose left hand is raised with his palm open toward the audience. A gesture of hello? Farewell? Or a declaration: “I’m still here.” Before Man with Stick reaches him, the stage goes black. Cochrane’s improvised score lingers until finally, all is silent.
This last scene returns us to contact improvisation’s origins and the focus on the healthy, able, physical body: “Contact improvisation … was one of a number of enterprises during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s dance, theater, therapy, and athletics which were trying to realize a redefinition of self within a responsive, intelligent body.”45 But THEM’s final moments explicitly refract contact improvisation’s early focus on a wholly functioning, arguably coherent and healthy body through the lens of sexual and racial otherness. The dancers’ radical way of moving, of navigating, of improvising in extreme conditions takes on new meaning within this context. The work bridges the risk of exposure with the very real possibility of suffering bodily harm or death as a result of unprotected sex, dangerous dancing, or the color of one’s skin. In this way, contact improvisation becomes a form of conditioning the body to physically respond to high-risk, antagonistic, and potentially fatal situations. Alternately, because the movement and sound scores are loosely structured, no performance is the same. Each presentation offers an opportunity to create and enact change, allowing the dancers to embody the act of taking risks that could produce new, spontaneous results.
In bringing together anxieties about AIDS, physical contact, and the racial politics of dance, THEM occupies a unique place in Houston-Jones’s output. While the piece lacks explicit references to AIDS, and race for that matter, the dance’s title and composition suggest a distinction between insider and outsider, us and them. The last movement sequence demonstrates the weight of this juncture. With each pass, the dancers’ improvising bodies at once resist cultural myths concerning gay male subjectivity, sexual practice, and racial others. The piece also refutes social and aesthetic norms associated with a white, male-predominated modern dance scene on one hand and so-called black dance on the other. As a result, it urges us to see anew the sexual and racial politics of movement and freedom by framing how bodies move, feel, exist, and express intimacy beyond love in the midst of social and political upheaval.
Author’s Note: The latter part of my essay title is taken from a Los Angeles Times review of a presentation of Houston-Jones’s work at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in December 1986. For the show, Houston-Jones performed versions of f/i/s/s/i/o/n/i/n/g, D E A D, and Relatives. See Craig Bromberg’s “Houston-Jones’ High-Risk Dancing” (Los Angeles Times 9 Dec 1986) and Lewis Segal’s “Ishmael Houston-Jones performs at LACE” (Los Angeles Times 13 Dec 1986).
Tiffany E. Barber is a scholar, curator, and writer of twentieth and twenty-first century visual art, new media, and performance. Her work focuses on artists of the black diaspora working in the United States and the broader Atlantic world. She is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware.