Ishmael Houston-Jones

The '80s are back with Them.


This fall, Ishmael Houston-Jones will revive a work, right before our eyes. Them, which celebrated its premiere in 1986, features text by Dennis Cooper, music by Chris Cochrane, six male dancers and a dead goat (yay, right?). Though he stopped actively making work in the early 2000s, Houston-Jones—a choreographer, teacher, curator, writer, performer and improviser—has been a force in the New York dance world for more than 30 years. The historic reconstruction will be unveiled in October at P.S. 122, but in the meantime, there are several opportunities to soak up the '80s. Parts of the production's rehearsal process are open to the public at the New Museum ("Them Today"); the museum series also offers "Them and Now," which sheds more light on the collaborators, beginning with a discussion, " 'Winging It' in High Heels and a Blindfold," on Friday 24. Recently Houston-Jones spoke about the project.

Were you pursuing this reconstruction?
Not really. Vallejo [Gantner, artistic director of P.S. 122] approached me. Because they're redoing the theater at P.S., they're bringing back some of what they're calling seminal works from the past before they start reconstruction. Of the pieces I've done at P.S. 122, it was the first collaboration with Dennis Cooper and it was the first time I worked with Chris Cochrane. It was a real turning point. I am wondering how particularly the AIDS theme has changed in the 25 years since the piece was made. It wasn't specifically an AIDS piece, but it was referenced.

Could you describe it?
The dance portion is a series of structured improvisations built around Dennis's text and Chris's music. They're not meant to be illustrative, but evocative of what's going on both in the words and in the music. The text is a kinder, gentler Dennis Cooper—it's funny because he wasn't that old, but it was sort of looking back at a male youth in awe of what his life used to be. He was in his thirties when he was writing it. In 1985, I was about 35.

How did you end up working with those collaborators?
I remember meeting Dennis and hearing him read for the first time, and I was blown away by the power of his words. I just went up to him and said, "Do you want to work together?" He was totally open to that. And a similar thing happened with Chris. I was taken by his music, but also by his posture. He was sort of hunched over the guitar making these incredible sounds. Then I thought, What if the three of us put something together? It was very sort of Mickey Rooney--Judy Garland, let's-put-on-a-show kind of thing. I think the text drives the piece a lot just in terms of imagery; definitely the text drove the dance more than the dance drove the text. Dennis read it live. We're not sure how it's going to happen here because he is living in Paris now and I don't know if we can get him here for the whole time. We're thinking possibly a voiceover? But in the original piece he spoke.

Were you improvising to the text?
Not to the text. We sort of set them up like parallel tracks, so I knew what the text was going to be and I set up situations. The opening duet is done just to music. In the 1986 version, Dennis reads the opening text and the guys are sort of in tableaux—there's not a lot of dancing, and the next section is a music-dance section and then it flips. There are times when Dennis is reading and there is movement happening—usually more static movement. The more expansive movement is done with music.

How many dancers were there?
Six. We're hoping for that [this time]. There's not a lot of money involved; there will be five or six, and I would prefer it to be six. There's one figure, who's the outsider figure and becomes the death figure in the later version.

On your blog (, you refer to your most terrifying performing experience as happening in it: "Sticking my head inside that goat carcass in Them was no picnic." Will it be repeated?
We're hoping it will. [Laughs] If I can't get anybody else to do it, I might make a cameo, but I'm not sure. I don't want to be in the piece. The theme of the piece was gay male youth, and I'm definitely no longer a youth. I really wasn't even when the piece was made, but I really am not now.

Have you opened your rehearsals to the public before?
Not in a real formal way, so it'll be interesting. It's an hour at each rehearsal, not the whole rehearsal. I think it's interesting to get a different sort of feedback—even if don't ask, you can see how people are taking the temperature of the room. I've invited people into rehearsals and I think it ramps up the ante. It makes it less ethereal and nebulous—especially in improv. This is also a performance.

What are you after in terms of dancers?
I'm looking for a variety of physical types. Also people who can improvise and people who can leave their technique behind; people who don't necessarily look like dancer-dancers. There is a lot of ensemble work and they're doing somewhat intimate things with each other. They're being physically close, working in contact, wrestling, throwing each other around and they're sort of figuring that out so it's not so much relying on pyrotechnics of technique but an innate sensitivity of what's going on around them. And a sense of self.

Is this to be a true reconstruction?
I think it'll be really hard to do a faithful reconstruction just because it's so improvised. Dennis and I haven't talked so much about the text. I know Chris has different ideas about what he wants to do with the music. And a lot of the movement depends on the people doing it, so that's going to change out of necessity. I'll see. The props: There's the goat, a mattress and a door frame that people can wrestle against.

What is the significance of the goat?
It came from Christian mythology. Do you know Richard Elovich? He was an actor-performer friend of ours who did things around P.S. 122, and he had this dream. He told me that he woke up and he was lying in bed next to his own dead body and he kept trying to throw his own dead body out of bed, but he couldn't do it. And that was the choreography of the goat dance—you're on this mattress with this thing that you're trying to get rid of, but you can't. I was blindfolded and wearing a hospital-like gown. I don't want to emphasize it so much because it literally is 45 seconds of the piece—it's a vision. There was also something else: The summer before this piece, an older woman from the neighborhood got hit by a car and was killed right in front of P.S. 122. I was around that day—I didn't see it happen, but I was around that day and her body was lying there. The police were investigating, and it was a hot summer day and she was covered.

How much will you talk to the new cast about not just the piece but the time in which it was made?
Quite a bit. And I'll be curious to see how things have changed in terms of mentality. It's so funny. I'm old. I'm doing reconstructions now. I did this thing in Philadelphia last winter; it was a piece from 1981, which is very different from any piece I would do now, but it was for four men and we had a lot of interesting conversations about how the lives of young men have changed from then to now and how they haven't.

How have they changed?
There's a whole section of the piece, which is very cheesy, of street cruising, and we had to explain the concept to them—this whole idea of hooking up on the street doesn't exist, at least in that way. Now, they do it on computers. That piece [What We're Made Of], in '81, was pre-AIDS, which made a huge difference. Homophobia is very much the same—this idea of exposure, of something bad happening just because of who you are.

Was that a primer for this?
Kind of. So different though.

How does it make you feel to bring back older works? To see them?
I think it's funny. This is across the board, even with strictly choreographed pieces: You really can't ever remake pieces. That is something I've been meaning to write about myself, especially in improvisation: What does it mean to reconstruct? What does it mean to redo something? How can you have something that was made in a specific time and place with specific bodies and personalities? Can you ever really redo it? So far, setting up the situation and just letting it exist has been my plan of attack.


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