Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler talk about heartbreak

Collaborators Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler talk about heartbreak in conjunction with their American Realness premiere

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Your publicity stills are amazing. What were you thinking? 
Houston-Jones:
I wanted to create an album cover. It also had references to the last photograph of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, where she’s clothed and he’s not.
Wexler: [She’s] not in her prom dress, though. I wore my prom dress. This has been the most natural collaboration, which is not surprising with Ish, but I’ve never worked so easily in terms of collaboration. I was at my parents’ house and I was cold, so I was looking through a closet for something to wear, and I found my junior-prom dress. I tried it on—probably to see if it still fit. It was also a vanity thing. It did. I texted Ish and said, “I want to wear my prom dress in some way,” which I don’t do in the dance.
Houston-Jones: And I’m not naked. 
Wexler: There’s no nudity and there’s no prom dress. But that initiated the idea for Ish, so then Ish was like, “I want to be naked.” But there we were using it to talk about Industry City.
Houston-Jones: Right. There was that thing at Industry City [a performance presented in Sunset Park by Danspace Project]. We had a room in which we created an environment with roses on the floor. We kidnapped people and made them dance for us.
Wexler: We had some of our sound score, and on the front door, we had both the invitation to dance with us and our e-mails asking people to go out with us. Kind of to fall in love. Also, we were serious. No one took us up on it.
Houston-Jones: I wore a not-quite tuxedo—a white dinner jacket. She wore the prom dress and her grandmother’s fur.
Wexler: She was also the spokesperson for Flemington Furs. What’s amazing was that because of the nature of radio at the time, she would do her radio show—“This is Mary Logan from Fact and Fancy. I’ll be back in a minute,” and then two seconds later, she would also have to do commercials. Her voice would change, and she would say, “Have you always wanted a fur?” It was still her. They gave her all these furs. After she died, we opened the closet and there was just fur, like dead animals in there. She had a mink, and her name was embroidered in it. I have it. That night [of Industry City] it was cold, and I was showing my roommate my prom dress, and she said, “What are you going to do if you’re cold? You should have a fur.” I said, “Funny you should mention that…” But one idea sparking another and another has been how the collaboration has been, and even from the beginning that’s how the piece came about. One idea then another.
Houston-Jones: And then some ideas got dropped, but organically.
Wexler: And we were fine with that.
Houston-Jones: The high heels.
Wexler: And the Spanx. Thank God, the Spanx. We still have them.
Houston-Jones: It related to an idea I had about body image. Body hatred. We were going to wear Spanx. There was no end date then. It was like, “Let’s get together at CPR and futz around.” We started bringing in different versions of songs that had meaning. And then I had a heart attack. [Laughs] It was around Valentine’s Day. We rehearsed on Valentine’s Day.
Wexler: Two days later, Ishmael had a heart attack. We had been counting the different ways of heartbreak, but for some reason that evening—because it was Valentine’s Day—we were getting free drinks from the bartender.
Houston-Jones: And we didn’t have dates. All the tables were set up for twos; we were at the bar.
Wexler: We didn’t realize it until it happened. We were like, Oh—we are each other’s dates. We just rehearsed this entire dance. And then two days later, Ish almost died, which then became a different kind of heart attack and this piece took on a really different, unexpected, real, real existence.
Houston-Jones: The first two weeks after I got out of the hospital, Emily was my primary caregiver.
Wexler: Almost three. We’ll call that “The Month of March.”
Houston-Jones: Totally coincidentally, [P.S. 122 artistic director] Vallejo Gantner and his family were going to Australia the exact day I got out of the hospital. I live in a four-story walk-up and I didn’t want to be taking four stories; Vallejo lives in an elevator building and said he was leaving town, so we ended up living there together for like a month.

Can you describe what happened to you?
Houston-Jones:
I don’t know! I had gone to see Jennifer Monson’s show at the Kitchen, and Ben Pryor and I were eating dinner, and he was like, “Why are you sweating so much?” It was February, and I was drenched. I said, “I don’t really feel very well. I should go home,” so I went home and as soon as I got out of the taxi, I projectile vomited for a long time, which, it turns out, is a symptom. Sweating is too.
Wexler: Every time he sweats now, I’m like, What the hell’s going on?
Houston-Jones: There was a flu going around. I thought I might have food poisoning. For two weeks, I just sort of assumed I had the flu. I was taking flu medicine.
Wexler: And you were updating your Facebook page! You were a little bit less in terms of our e-mails. There weren’t as many, but I was like, Maybe he needs some space. I’m going to give him some space.
Houston-Jones: I stayed in bed a lot. I drank tea. [Laughs] One day, I went to the bodega, which is like a block away, and I had to sit down in the street coming back home, and I said, “This is weird.”
Wexler: People were like, “Go to the doctor.”
Houston-Jones: I went to my doctor and started telling him my symptoms, and he looked at me and gave me an EKG [electrocardiogram] He said, “You should go to the emergency room right now.” Three times he said, “Don’t walk—take a taxi.” I was going to Beth Israel, which was three blocks away. The next day I was on the table.
Wexler: I got a phone call. We were in rehearsal and he left a message: “So I had a heart attack. I need quadruple-bypass surgery tomorrow.” But then, in terms of people in his life—all the wonderful people that love you—it was like a flood. I became the gatekeeper and the organizer of how to manage care. Within the first three hours of you finding out what was up, the way to negotiate all of that care without Ish having to feel it—to feel the immensity of that care in that way became—I was very happy to do it, but I was kind of nominated. It was a job that I didn’t necessarily apply for, but I was very happy to take it. The night before surgery, we were sitting in his hospital room. [Dr. Charles M.] Geller, his surgeon, told him to have a burger. I don’t know if that was the best advice.
Houston-Jones: He said, “Have something, because you’re not going to be able to…”
Wexler: Ever again. [Laughs] We love him.
Houston-Jones: He’s kind of wacky. We got salmon instead. There’s this poignant image of when we first went to Vallejo’s and I had to pee, and I really couldn’t stand up. It might end up in the piece somehow. Emily’s holding me as I’m standing up from behind. I was thinking, This is incredible. The intimacy of that.
Wexler: Intimacy. Love. Actually, that’s what I was thinking last night about the different capacities of true love. A lot of our piece is going back and thinking about, not just heartbreak and incredible longing and desire, but the specific ways that’s happened: We read our journal entries. I went back to try and look for old love letters. There was one I wanted so badly to include; I contacted the ex, and [the letter] had burned up in a house fire. It was crazy. I hadn’t talked to him in ten years or something. I just wrote him an e-mail: “Hey, this is kind of fucked up, but I’m doing this piece, I’m going back in time trying to work it all out,” and he wrote back and was like, “I actually saved all those letters, but they burned in a house fire.” I go back to my journals from second grade. There’s a part of the piece that’s from this guy I was obsessed with from the time I was in the second grade through the tenth grade.

Whoa.
Wexler:
I know. I know. It’s pretty intense. There’s something that you can’t recognize when you’re in that place of desire, because you’re so completely within that pulsing of the raw. Ish and I formed this incredible, incredible loving relationship that has led into healing and support. And that’s really what’s been happening despite our living among these versions of rejection. It’s made me go back to all of the friendships in my life to see all of the love that was actually fulfilled and happening through conversations of love. More love was actually created even if the actual true love that was sought was not fulfilled. That’s what our piece is: how all these things were happening all along.
Houston-Jones: One thing I noticed in reading my entries is that there’s always sort of a soundtrack with references to songs. I would write to people and say, “Nina Simone is playing on the radio.” There was always a soundtrack going on in these many relationships on different levels. The title of the piece comes from my challenge with mathematics. There was one relationship I had with someone, and it was all around the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, except the relationship only lasted through the first two albums. So I stopped listening to those. I said, “We’ll just use the last album.” I divided 69 into three and got 13. [Laughs] We do use one Magnetic Fields so far.
Wexler: I had the same kind of incredibly weighted visceral memory experience with 69 Love Songs. It was one of the first mixtapes my ex-boyfriend made. It ended up taking seven tapes to fit all 69. But Ish and I had a shared history; we couldn’t listen to the first two albums. Every time I’d go back, I couldn’t do it. So in this piece, there’s a reclaiming that’s trying to happen, which is reflected in the title. We want to reclaim ourselves. Take it back.
Houston-Jones: We expanded it to different artists, different songs. It’s a much wider range now. We have some Aretha Franklin. Cat Power. Gin Blossoms. Mariah Carey—I sort of do a deconstruction of a Mariah Carey song. I do a little singing based on the Stylistics song.

Wexler: I have a truly sincere [version of a] Kate Rusby song. People might burst out laughing when they see it, and that’s fine with me, but there’s an incredibly weighted emotional issue. It’s full of meaning.
Houston-Jones: And there’s Satie also.
Wexler: This piece is very much a slippage between sincerity and ridiculousness.

Before the heart attack and after the heart attack, did you view these love songs differently? Were you being more sarcastic?
Houston-Jones:
It tended toward being ironic. Aretha, the high heels, the Bryan Adams.
Wexler: Maybe after the heart attack we gave each other permission to be sincere.
Houston-Jones: I think so. Aretha survived.

Which Aretha?
Houston-Jones:
We’re not telling.
Wexler: There are more things that happen: We don’t just all listen to a mixtape. Actual events occur in and around that. One of our first rehearsals—other than the previous four years of idea swapping—was in a bar on a napkin. Somehow it became an ode to Morrissey that also didn’t survive. Or the Smiths.
Houston-Jones: They didn’t make the cut. The bar was near the Chocolate Factory because we had seen something there and we were like, “We have to do the score. Right now.” [Laughs]
Wexler: When I look at the napkin, I’m like, This was nowhere near genius. This is not even close. I think it just says Morrissey and has a few stars. What were we going to do with that in rehearsal? We were going to pull out our e-mails back and forth and try to find a way to use that as some sort of materiality, but it led to the journals; then we started reading to each other. I wanted to use this memory material in the work and kind of have to go through a painful experience of getting them: calling this ex-person and trying to find this letter. Having to reconnect with him again, which was painful; and the same with the boy that I was obsessed with since second grade.

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