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

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler perform at American Realness; 2048x1365

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler perform at American Realness; 2048x1365 Photograph: Ian Douglas

This year, Ben Pryor's American Realness Festival includes Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler's 13 Love Songs: dot dot dot. To develop the duet, the artists sifted through old mixtapes, journals and love letters to determine the nature of love. But after Houston-Jones suffered a heart attack and Wexler became his primary caretaker, the duo found answers closer than they anticipated. The choreographers talked about the piece before its premiere at Abrons Arts Center.

American Realness has something new up its sleeve: premieres. One anticipated collaboration is Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler’s 13 Love Songs: dot dot dot, in which the pair delves into the rawness of longing and heartbreak. During the making, Houston-Jones suffered a heart attack; Wexler became his primary caretaker. Recently they spoke about their experience and the creation of 13 Love Songs. 

How did you two meet?
Ishmael Houston-Jones:
At ADF [American Dance Festival] in 2005.
Emily Wexler: I was the secretary: the hostile receptionist.
Houston-Jones: The only place you could get good Wi-Fi was by her desk, so I was always there, all the time. 
Wexler: I wouldn’t talk to anyone except for Ishmael.
Houston-Jones: Then I was her thesis mentor when she went to Hollins for an MFA.

Emily, would you tell me a bit about your dance background?
I started dancing when I was six, but I was in a group with people who had just started dancing, regardless of age. So I was a second grader, but I was in school with fifth and sixth graders. I started in a dance studio in South Jersey, outside Philly.

Did you like it, or was it just another activity?
I was a dance person. I was in my own world, dancing all the time. I kept on saying, “I want to take dance class,” and my mom wanted me to be the one to choose where I was going to go, so we shopped around—but the options were limited. For some reason, I really loved the teacher [at one studio]. It was a competition studio, but I also had modern dance, and I became really obsessed with it because of the intense emotional quality. I started doing Graham when I was young. I was completely obsessed with contractions. When I started looking at colleges, my aunt—who is the dance director at University of Memphis—was telling me where to look. She mentioned Hollins. At first, I didn’t want to go there because it was so far away, but I did, and I loved it.

What was your thesis subject at Hollins?
I was trying to find a way for choreographers to create artistic practices that were based on a more democratic way of working rather than a version of tyranny. In my theory class, I was trying to talk about the different nations that exist within dance and creating a system to hold myself very vigilantly to. Then, in terms of working artistically, my grandmother had just died. I made a piece kind of about the lineage of, in general, the female experience. It was related to her body.
Houston-Jones: You wore her shoes.
Wexler: I danced through glass. I forgot about that. I collected hundreds of multicolored bottles that reminded me of sea glass. She was from Cape Cod. She had a radio show called Fact and Fancy. She was a very elaborate person; the two pieces I used [from the show] were about feminism and memory. I worked with them as a sound score. It was a solo, but I didn’t really want to be alone so I asked for the other women who were in the program to join me. When the piece starts, there’s nothing in the space except for me and then as it continues, they get to choose when and where they place the glass bottles. I don’t change the choreography at all, but the bottles are wherever; as I continued, I would dance through and on the bottles. By the end of the piece, they were all breaking, and I was literally dancing on glass, which was really intense.

As Emily’s thesis adviser, how much contact did you have?
When I was there, we met almost daily. I went to rehearsals.
Wexler: I feel like our friendship deepened after that.
Houston-Jones: When you moved back to New York, we reconnected. We were both in the revival of Yvonne Meier’s The Shining. I wish I could remember how the piece started.
Wexler: Our piece, this piece? All of a sudden, our friendship became us e-mailing each other every night. Like in the middle of the night, we went back and forth, sending these really intense e-mails about love and heartbreak. Somehow that led into us being like, “We should use this in a theoretical piece. It would be funny if we had this exchange in a piece.” But that was five years ago; it was still in the kidding realm.

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