Ishmael Houston-Jones

The '80s are back with Them.

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Talk to me about that time and that place surrounding the creation of Them.
Well, P.S. 122 was very different. Them was very much located in that building, in that room. I think that's another reason why I wanted to do it. It was much of a feeling of community around the space—it wasn't like a theater so much, but a bunch of people. Again, it was very Judy Garland--Mickey Rooney, people putting on shows. There wasn't very much equipment and the work coming out of there was really interesting and of a community. Very few pieces were imported that didn't have some direct connection to the people who were hanging around doing stuff there. That was part of it. It was very East Village mid '80s. Punk, new wave, the gay scene mixed with the dancey-dance scene as well. It was interesting. There were definitely dancers who were interested in punk music; the club scene was going on and people who I knew from the dance world would go to Limbo Lounge and the Wah-Wah Hut and see shows. I remember Neil Greenberg performing at the Wah-Wah Hut, which was pretty amazing because the stage was as big as this table.

So the club scene was in the mix.
Definitely. That was the time. And using Chris as a musician—Karole [Armitage] did it with Rhys [Chatham]. Using somebody from a band was an idea that was around at that time. I think [critic] Burt [Supree] said something about the pall of AIDS sort of hovering around the piece, even though it never gets directly addressed. And I think it was very true: People we knew were dying, not just sick but actually really dying. A lot. So there was a sense of urgency that I don't feel so much now—from anti nukes, to wars in Central America. People were in opposition. People were invested more than they are now at least visibly, vocally invested—it came out of that time. And around that time I was volunteering for God's Love We Deliver, so I was delivering food and I had just gotten back from Nicaragua not too long before that. I was down there during the civil war. Teaching soldiers contact improvisation—I don't know what I was thinking.

Let's digress for a second.
[Laughs] I went down the first time I think in '83 for two weeks as part of a theater festival—I was a guest of the government and there were a bunch of us North Americans. Then, the following year I went down on my own. I had met some people and was teaching at the University of Central America, Managua. Saying that I was teaching soldiers is a little bit disingenuous because everybody was a soldier then. People would show up in their fatigues and change out of them and prop their rifles against the wall and have on leotards underneath. It was kind of a scary time and it was kind of exciting too. I was just down there for a couple of months. The first time when I was down there for the festival, we were guests of the Sandinistas, so we were being driven around in buses and sort of pampered and taken out to dinners. The second time I was staying with a family who rented out a room and getting around on my own which was really difficult. I felt like people were much more engaged politically and with social issues than they are now. Them came out of that feeling even though it's not a didactic political piece; it's very much more poetic and abstract, but it comes out of that feeling of urgency, that there was a reason for doing it. That will be interesting—to see how that translates to a different generation of performer.

When did you start dancing?
The first dance class was as a junior in high school. It was stagey. It was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I grew up and the community theater was offering free dance classes to teenagers and my friend Susan Lourie, who I'm still friends with and is on the dance faculty of Wesleyan now, said, "Do you want to come down and take class?" I said, "Sure." I was involved in theater in high school. It was jazzy, modern. I loved it. But I went to college as an English major to a school that didn't have a dance program in Erie, Pennsylvania, which is Gannon College, which is now Gannon University. I lasted there two years and dropped out.

Did you move?
To Israel. Where I lived for a year.

What were you doing there?
Hanging out. Working. I was traveling around the world after my sophomore year of college with the intention of coming back and then I wound up in Israel—breaking my parents' hearts and dropping out of college and staying for a year. I was a pig farmer for nine months and then I worked in a banana plantation.

My God.
It was a really interesting time in '71—between the two big wars. It as a really good feeling and not so scary and I had always been a closet socialist—as a 19-year-old from Harrisburg could be. I had never done any kind of heavy farm work in my life and getting up at 4am and feeding pigs and mating them and working in a slaughterhouse—it was really cool. After that, I moved to Philadelphia. The same Susan was going to Temple and I moved into her house, where there was an extra room. I started auditing classes there and then I got into a company, Group Motion Media Theater, which still exists actually. I danced with them for two years and then started doing my own work. I was in Philly for seven years. I moved here in '79.

What made you decide to move to New York?
I always wanted to live in New York. I mythologized it a lot. When I moved to Philadelphia I think it was the first baby step to moving to a big city. And I was sort of happy that I didn't move here when I was just 20—I might have gotten swallowed up. Philadelphia was easier, and I was finding my own voice there. When I came here, I had an identity and an aesthetic that I was working with; it could have worked here too but I think it was easier finding that there. And then it was time to leave and I stayed one critical year too long. [Laughs] It's like I'd made the decision and stayed; I worked with Terry Fox. We did a lot of improv together.

Did you know people here?
I sort of did. I'd been coming up and taking contact classes with Danny Lepkoff and seeing my shrink, which was sort of interesting. My shrink in Philadelphia thought I should be seeing a movement therapist because I was not very talkative and I couldn't find one there and I started working with a woman here.

You produced work throughout the '80s and '90s. When and why did you stop?
In the early 2000s. It was a conscious decision. I just felt like I didn't know what I wanted to say and I didn't want to be one of these people who just makes work just to make work. I was committed to performing in other people's work if I got asked but I didn't feel I had anything new to put out there, that I felt compelled to make. Rather than just do work to make work—and I've never wanted to have a company and I don't have a company—I made that decision. I think it's the right one.

Why have you started again now?
Well, now I'm doing revivals [Laughs].

But you're making a new piece at the New School, where you teach, right?
I've actually done pieces with students at other places too. The piece I'm doing at the New School will probably be a variation on what I did at Alfred University last winter, so I've been working with students. And last year I did a piece at DNA and that was the first newish thing. I like working with students. It's sort of an extension of teaching. Working with students on performance is a way of teaching that accomplishes something that just teaching doesn't. I like the fact that they're open. And if they're open—a lot of young people aren't open—I must amend that. [Laughs]

Is it because they have so much information?
Or that they're hungry for information. Or—this is going to sound bad—they have wrong information against my role as the corrupter. I see that a lot at ADF [American Dance Festival]. People come from wherever and whatever state; essentially I'm teaching improvisation, and they've been taught this one way that improvisation is this one thing and it's usually something awful. What I did actually and Donna Faye [Burchfield] asked me to develop a curriculum for teaching improvisation. I had different people coming in, so it's not just me. Especially with improvisation—there are just so many different avenues of approach, so I brought Yvonne Meier in and David Brick of Philadelphia, Keith Hennessey, Curt Haworth. Different people coming in to give different information, which was really good. I think a lot of young people, and I am going to contradict myself, aren't that open. They've been taught. A lot of them go through studios. I never did that so I'm always curious when they speak with this ownership, "I went to my studio" which means the place where they studied. It's sort of breaking a multitude of bad habits. My role of a corrupter comes in.

When did you know you had that?
I think early on. [Laughs] I think that rules are made to be broken.

 

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