What is black dance?

Ishmael Houston-Jones resurrects his legendary "Parallels" at Danspace Project.

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After Ishmael Houston-Jones moved to New York from Philadelphia in 1979, he felt isolated, but instead of wallowing in it, he wrote to Cynthia Hedstrom, then-director of Danspace Project, to ask about curating a series of works by black choreographers. In 1982, the resulting "Parallels" showcased artists including Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Blondell Cummings and Fred Holland. The point? Black artists weren't working merely in mainstream modern dance. Houston-Jones is commemorating the event this year by creating a new version of "Parallels" as part of Danspace Project's latest Platform series. It's a doozy: a 100-page catalog and eight weeks of programming, including an evening called "Black Dance"—without one black artist.

Would you elaborate on your state of mind when you originally created "Parallels"?
I was from Philadelphia and sort of new to New York, and I had been doing all kinds of alternative things—a lot of improvisation with Terry Fox and working with Fred Holland. I was in an all-gay-men's performance collective. I also studied Afro and modern and a little bit of ballet, and when I came here, I had the prevailing sense of what black dance was came from the Ailey heritage. I'm definitely somewhat a part of that. I studied Horton in Philadelphia and that kind of modern dance, but it wasn't my primary interest. I felt like there was a group of us who were working in other traditions and that our work wasn't seen, and that it would be interesting to see those works next to each other. What would it seem like if we put those works together and said, "This is an alternative view of possibilities of what black dance can be?" So I asked Cynthia [Hedstrom] at Danspace, and she said yes.

Was Ailey your early role model, in a weird way, too?
In a weird way. I mean, I remember the first time I saw a concert and Judith [Jamison] doing Cry. I was amazed. I wanted to get up and do that, but it wasn't a primary interest of mine, and also, I'm not a great technician. That's the truth. I studied modern techniques and was awful in ballet. Horrible in jazz. I was very interested in contact improv and other forms of improvisation.

What did the experience reveal to you about what black dance was?
That it was a variety of things. That it was as different as Fred Holland doing a weird piece with a movie on a small screen, to Gus Solomons pacing the space in geometric shapes, to Ralph dancing around with live musicians in a green skirt, to Bebe Miller doing this beautiful dance to Gregorian chants, to Blondell Cummings dancing with a skillet in Chicken Soup. And me dancing with my mom and talking. That it had endless possibilities. That it wasn't a limited palette.

And I'm sure you knew that before you went in.
Yes. That was the thesis, and this was the proof of the thesis.

Since I wasn't here then, tell me about that time. What was the impact?
I don't know what the impact was. People were curious. We had very good houses. Largely white audiences like Danspace has, but maybe a fraction more African-American. And I think it did serve to identify us. Linda [Goode] Bryant at a gallery called Just Above Midtown, which was actually in Tribeca at the time, got us together, and we ended up doing a think tank. Fred was in it; I was in it; Tony Whitfield, an artist, sort of organized it. We began talking to each other and found commonalities—like most of us had this experience early on in our schooling, in elementary or middle school, where we were put in special classes. It happened to me in sixth grade; it was this really weird common thing that happened to almost all of us.

Was the original "Parallels" structured similarly to this?
It was much smaller—over two weekends—with three or four artists on each program. This will also be shared programs. It just evolved that way. I like seeing work against work a lot, to see how pieces sit next to each other. Once it became almost all that, I decided to not have a one-single-artist evening. I couldn't think of who that could be and what that would do to the balance.

Do you distinguish between black dance and downtown dance?
Yesterday I was watching with Will Rawls [who is curating two film evenings] the Steve Paxton--Bill T. Jones talk. It was a Studies Project at Movement Research. They do. [Laughs] I don't know if I do. Labels are useful and not useful. That's where the name "Parallels" came from. I sort of exist in both worlds. In looking at the work—my work, Blondell's, Bebe's and Ralph's—I see that there's a certain heat that was not happening in the general postmodernism going on at the time. A certain passion, a certain personalness. It wasn't blank. Even in Bebe's work, which is very abstract, there's a woman singing Gregorian chant-like music, and Bebe's dancing to it; there's a certain attack that you wouldn't find in a lot of postmodern dance. I think it's interesting to tease out those differences.

Are you and Rawls choosing the films together?
I gave all the curators carte blanche to do what they want. There is consulting. For the first night, he chose clips from the 1982 series, so they're rough video clips; plus, if we can get the rights, the Paxton--Bill T. debate.

Tell me about that.
I was in New York, but somehow I didn't go that night; very few people actually saw it, but it's become downtown legend. The myth of it is that they were going at it, but they both have, probably deservedly, large egos and senses of themselves, and it's more of a friendly sparring match where Bill is critiquing general postmodernism and work that came after Judson, and Steve is defending it and critiquing Bill's bravura. [That] his focus is outward and toward the audience. I don't know if he used the word entertaining, but Steve definitely has an edge, and Mary Overlie's in the middle trying to moderate the two of them, so it does look like a friendly boxing match.

Did you ask Bill T. Jones to be involved this time around?
Not directly. I was trying to figure out how to position him because the work being shown is mainly, with a few exceptions, of younger people. And even then, it was people without set companies. I involved Reggie Wilson and Dean Moss because they were of the original generation but they weren't involved [originally], so I wanted to involve them somehow. They have companies in name, but they're still pick-up companies. The focus was on independent choreographers who made work without that structure.

You also asked Dean Moss to curate programs, along with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Bebe Miller.
Again, it was to diffuse the voices. I'm anticipating getting slammed for Dean's evening.

I'm really looking forward to his night, "Black Dance."
I know. I like that he just went with it. Jawole is interested in how improvisation has always been a part of the black vernacular, from Africanist dancing to the Lindy Hop and Savoy dancing to jazz improvisation, so she wanted to choose people who use improvisation in their work or would address that as a form. Bebe is dealing with heritage: where people come from. And it's all women in her case. What their sense of mentors are. It's Gesel Mason, Cynthia Oliver and Marya Wethers, so it's sort of a generational thing as well. Dean's is interesting. I don't know how it will be read.

How did you react when he told you?
I said, "What?" [Laughs] Then I said, "Okay." I think it's a great idea. It's just a little bit like, Really? I think it will be interesting to see how the approach of metaphorical blackness works as opposed to the ethnic. If Ann Liv [Young] shows up in blackface, I'll die. [Laughs] And don't think she's not.

Is there anyone you feel is missing for whatever reason?
Trajal Harrell. His schedule didn't work, but he's the one person I really feel is missing.

Why is his voice so crucial?
Because he's doing something that references his ethnicity and doing it in a very oblique and conceptual way that is interesting. I wish that could have worked. I wanted to get Rennie Harris, but he's on the West Coast now, at UCLA. We are Danspace. We have very limited travel funds. This is the largest of the platforms thus far. The catalog is 100 pages.

The influence of this program extended beyond New York, because there was a European tour of "Parallels" in 1987. What was the reception like?
It was different. The French were very curious. We were sold out every night. There were debates afterward with all of us onstage, and people were questioning: Why is this black? Is it black dance or not? Why were we calling it black dance? That happened in London, too. There was a funding issue going on in London at the time in which black choreographers who weren't working in a certain recognizable Africanist aesthetic were not being funded for that work, even if it referenced their ethnicity, because the council was determining what was black. So we became part of the conversation about that. The Parisians were just Parisians. They loved it, they hated it, they booed. I remember during my duet with Fred [Holland], someone started booing, and he started booing back. It was really funny.

Who did they love?
My memory is that they loved Bebe and Ralph's duet, which I thought was gorgeous. I think they were curious about Fred and me. Blondell's work was easier for them to read because it was more representational. I'm not sure about Jawole, but she did something where she broke an egg on her chest. I remember sitting on the stage and Ralph was answering a question and talking about how his work was seeking to be universal, and Jawole said, "My work is blatantly black," so that's what we called her for the rest of the tour. Blatantly Black.

Could you talk about the perception of black dance and how it's shifted in the years since? Have there been big shifts?
I think there have, and Bill T. is one of the reasons for that. People began to see that it could be something else, particularly in his earlier work with Arnie [Zane] and in the works shortly after Arnie [died]. I think a larger audience of people was more accepting that it didn't have to be Ailey. For people of my mother's generation, black dance was Ailey. But it could be something alternative. Bebe, Jawole, David Roussve, Cynthia Oliver and I are all on dance faculties at universities. Darrell Jones is at Columbia in Chicago. Gus was at Tisch. People are beginning to see, both black and white audiences, that there is more of a breadth, and there is more of an acceptance of work that isn't that presentational. I see this at the American Dance Festival—not what's put on the stage there, but with students. They're exposed to contact and to conceptual work. They're exposed to site-specific work. It's part of the vernacular. There is a melding of black and white popular culture, too—rap and other forms of popular music [have something to do with it]. There's a lot of crossover, and it's much more porous now. And there's Obama.

How does that affect you as a black artist?
In my [catalog] essay, I talk about the fact that he has a white American mother and a Kenyan father, but he was raised mostly by his white family in Hawaii and Kansas and then in Indonesia, and that he's always referred to as the first black president. He doesn't share a lot of the history of most American blacks. I think the preconception of what black is has shifted and that people are willing to see things in a more complicated, complex, layered way. Things aren't as, pun intended, black and white anymore. Queer culture has done that too; sexual roles are not as defined as they were in previous generations. I think culture as a whole is opening up, so this is part of that opening up. You can be a black dancemaker who references a myriad of things, from Cunningham to Derrida to Abstract Expressionism to Samuel Delany. The spectrum of your palette is much broader now.

What do you hope will happen in "Parallels" this time around?
I don't know. I wonder if there is such a thing as black dance. That's how I opened. That was my question: Is there such a thing as black dance now and is that a relevant term anymore? And I'm trying to answer that. I like having a question and letting the platform answer it.

Do you want there to be such a thing?
I'm not sure. That's actually an honest answer. I resist categories. I noticed in my letter to Cynthia Hedstrom when I was proposing this thing, I said, "I really don't like identity shows." The "feminist" show or the "gay" show or whatever. But at the same time, I think it's an interesting way of—okay, let's look at it through this lens at this moment. So I don't know if I want it to be.

What do you cover in your essay?
I go through historic moments of debate about black dancers. I talk about Ailey, and I imply that the U.S. government used Ailey—their first international tour funded by the State Department was in 1961, when a lot of racial turmoil was happening. The country was divided on racial lines, but they were sending Ailey abroad as the exemplar of American art: This mostly black company headed by a black man, which I find—and [Thomas F.] DeFrantz also says this—complicates a reading of racial relations. And also that the State Department was somehow shaping what official black dance was at that time. I talk about Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham and how their use of scholarship is being echoed in choreographers now, like Reggie Wilson and Samantha Speis and Ralph Lemon, who are traveling to Africa and to the Caribbean. So the anthropological thing has a historical precedent. Diane McIntyre and her study of the Savoy ballroom dancers echoes people who are working in voguing now. So I'm trying to show how things don't just happen in a vacuum—that there is a lineage, and however windy it is, there is a lineage of what work by blacks in America are making.

What's the most important thing in this Platform?
I'll know when it's over. Right now, it's full of questions, and I like the not knowing. Are the labels "black" or "experimental" or "postmodern" of any use to anyone anymore? And if they are, who is doing it and who is pushing beyond that and who is thinking in new and different ways about making work? The emphasis in the catalog is the past and history and contextualizing, while the emphasis on the programming, except for the first film night, is all forward-looking. What's happening next? Hopefully, answers will come out of the contextualization of the catalog and in the series of performances.

Platform 2012: "Parallels" runs Feb 2--March 31 at various locations.
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