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Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEM

Abstract and Keywords

“Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEM” analyzes the 2010 re-creation of a 1986 performance conceived by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Chris Cochrane, and Dennis Cooper, which critics often cite as one of the earliest performance art responses to the AIDS crisis. Given that the work consists entirely of scored improvisations, this essay considers the politics of reconstructing an improvised dance. Drawing from dance studies as well as recent queer theory that focuses on temporality, the essay attends to the specter of the original cast from the 1980s. It argues that improvisation enabled the dancers, many of whom weren’t alive during the piece’s premiere, to explore a past that they didn’t entirely understand, while also demanding that they place themselves, literally and figuratively, in relation to that past.

Keywords: improvisation, dance, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper, Chris Cochrane, queer, temporality, AIDS, performance reconstruction

On May 10, 1985, the choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, the musician Chris Cochrane, and the writer Dennis Cooper presented a work-in-progress called THEM. The performance involved a series of structured improvisations that, as Burt Supree later wrote in the Village Voice, explored “some ways men are with men—physically, sexually, emotionally.”1 Cochrane composed and performed the score, Cooper wrote and recited the text, and Houston-Jones was joined by two other dancers, Donald Fleming and Jonathan Walker. Less than a year later, the group performed a portion of THEM as part of Dancing for Our Lives!, the first official AIDS benefit for New York City’s dance community, held at the downtown performance space known as P.S. 122.2

In November 1986, Houston-Jones, Cochrane, Cooper, Fleming, and four additional dancers—Barry Crooks, Julyen Hamilton, Daniel McIntosh, and David Zambrano—presented a fuller version of the work at P.S. 122. Much had changed over the previous eighteen months. The work became darker and more explicit in its reference to HIV/AIDS. Whereas the work-in-progress contained a series of fragile, and occasionally violent, improvisations intertwined with Cooper’s melancholic texts, the 1986 version concluded with a devastating section where Houston-Jones wrestled with a dead goat—blood smearing on the mattress upon which the dance takes place—and a final improvisation where the dancers tentatively felt their necks, underarms, and groins, as if checking for inflamed lymph nodes.3 Moreover, the improvisations seemed riskier—the dancers had more range, they were more expressive, and they showed a willingness to be still and to make contact with the floor. Houston-Jones explains, “By November 1986 I already had friends, ex-boyfriends, heroes who were dying of The Plague and making an upbeat work about the ways six men could possibly be together seemed impossible then.”4 According to Supree, whose lover died of AIDS the week before he saw the final version,5THEM has become a much grimmer piece since the chunk I saw at Dancing for Our Lives! … I remember it as aggressive and vital, but the current version seems more stiff-lipped, hardened, fatalistic, as if too many emotional and sensual options (p. 310) have been terminated since then.”6 He continued, “THEM isn’t a piece about AIDS, but AIDS constricts its view and casts a considerable pall” (see Figures 17.1 and 17.2).7

In 2010, Vallejo Gantner, the current Artistic Director of P.S. 122, invited Houston-Jones to reconstruct a past performance as part of a broader thirtieth anniversary retrospective of significant works performed at P.S. 122. Houston-Jones decided to bring back THEM, and the work was presented in October 2010 in the same theater as its premiere (see Figures 17.3, 17.4, and 17.5). Reflecting on his decision, Houston-Jones explains, “I am wondering how particularly the AIDS theme has changed in the twenty-five years since the piece was made.”8 After holding an audition and deciding upon a cast for the reconstruction, which involved Cochrane, Cooper, Houston-Jones, and seven male dancers in their twenties and early thirties, it became clear that several of the young dancers were not even alive when the piece premiered and they had varied understandings of the AIDS pandemic. In fact, at the beginning of the reconstruction process, some of the dancers felt as though they had no personal connection to the HIV virus whatsoever. How, then, to give the contextual knowledge that informed the creation of the piece, and how to give the dancers a sense of the paranoia, urgency, and sorrow embedded in the work? This became a complex challenge for Houston-Jones, who insisted that AIDS is so significant that surely the young dancers have memories or connections to it somewhere. As he said in an interview, the disease is still present and many people do still die from it.9

Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEMClick to view larger

Figure 17.1 Clockwise, from left to right: Chris Cochrane, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Jonathan Walker, Donald Fleming (floor), THEM (1985).

Photograph by Dona Ann McAdams.

(p. 311)

Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEMClick to view larger

Figure 17.2 Ishmael Houston-Jones, Chris Cochrane, and Johnny Walker, THEM (1985).

Photograph by Dona Ann McAdams.

Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEMClick to view larger

Figure 17.3 Felix Cruz and Jeremy Pheiffer, THEM (2010).

Photograph by Ian Douglas.

(p. 312)

Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEMClick to view larger

Figure 17.4 Ishmael Houston-Jones in THEM (2010).

Photograph by Ian Douglas.

Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEMClick to view larger

Figure 17.5 Joey Canizzaro in THEM (2010).

Photograph by Ian Douglas.

(p. 313) Importantly, improvisation played a vital role in allowing the dancers to uncover and explore that knowledge. As Houston-Jones reflects on the process, “We were having an improvisation where they [the younger dancers] had to speak about their relationship to AIDS/HIV, and they started saying, ‘Oh, I don’t have any relationship.’ But as we kept probing and talking, they actually do—like a cousin, or somebody they danced with—and they would remember.”10

In what follows, I discuss some of the ways that dance scholars have written about improvisation. Then, resisting the prevalent notion that improvisation enables “free” dancing, I highlight constraints that the dancers involved in the reconstruction of THEM negotiated: racialized assumptions about training, the demands of dancing with a partner, and the strictures presented by the score and the narrative aspects of Cooper’s text. But I focus primarily on the ways in which the passage of time affected the dancers’ improvisations, for this is where the politics of the work emerge with particular force. As José Muñoz writes in Cruising Utopia, “memory is most certainly constructed and, more important, always political.”11 Muñoz goes on to suggest that remembrances enacted through performance, especially performances that index queer desire and public sexuality, have the capacity to offer hope in the face of abjection.12 In other words, it can be powerful, even sustaining, to take on embodied modes of relating to others that resist heteronormative displays of sexuality. In the reconstruction of THEM, improvisation enabled the dancers to explore a past that they didn’t entirely understand, while also demanding that, throughout the performance, they place themselves—literally and figuratively—in relation to that past. As Niall Noel Jones, one of these dancers, explained, “[THEM] feels large, like it has a long life.”13 Jones, who was twenty-seven years old at the time of THEM’s re-creation, noted the specter of the original cast from the 1980s and their friends and lovers, as well as the many people Cooper references in his text. He continued, “There are multiple ghosts within the work. There are many hauntings that are danced.”14 The fact that the dancers improvised these hauntings, as opposed to merely miming what the original cast had done in the eighties, resulted in a reconstruction that actively reconsiders the past, while quite possibly gesturing toward a future.

Ishmael Houston-Jones: The Politics of Dancing

Ishmael Houston-Jones grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and started taking dance classes as a teenager. He spent two years studying English at Gannon College before dropping out and moving to Israel in 1971, where he worked as a pig farmer and then on a banana plantation. After spending a year in Israel, he moved to Philadelphia and danced for Group Motion Media Theater. He later participated in an ensemble called “A Way of Improvising” with Terry Fox and Jeff Cain, and in the mid-1970s helped form a gay men’s collective called Two Men Dancing.15 According to Houston-Jones, (p. 314) at that time improvised dance in Philadelphia was both rare and unloved. Houston-Jones therefore began commuting to New York City to study contact improvisation—an emerging form where dancers improvise in contact with a partner—with Daniel Lepkoff. Houston-Jones moved to New York City in 1979 and created works throughout the 1980s and 1990s that were grounded in improvisation. Aside from his recent reconstructions, Houston-Jones stopped making new work about a decade ago. But he still performs, and he teaches at colleges and universities, including Hollins, Sarah Lawrence College, and The New School. He also teaches regularly at the American Dance Festival, where he coordinates the improvisation curriculum.

Unlike many of today’s aspiring dancers, Houston-Jones never considered the pursuit of improvisatory training as something separate from everyday life.16 As he explored improvised dance in the early 1980s, he also was politically active, working for God’s Love We Deliver, an organization that prepares and delivers food for people who aren’t able to provide for themselves due to illnesses. He traveled to Nicaragua in 1983 and 1984 to teach improvisation. For him, activism and dance were never wholly separate. As Houston-Jones remarks, “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—[THEM] came out of that time.”17 This doesn’t mean that his work was didactic or politically obtuse. According to the choreographer Jennifer Monson, “Ishmael was engaged in political work that trusts the dancing. Improvisation in Ishmael’s work gave dancers permission to feel. He creates a space where dancers can move toward something, and feel supported, without knowing in precise terms the nature of the place of arrival. There’s a kind of listening and attentiveness, and engagement with the outside world, that improvisation requires.”18

Ironically, within the field of dance, most discussions of improvisation elide the kind of engagement with the outside world that Monson describes. Critics, scholars, and dancers across a range of genres tend to link improvisation with notions of “freedom” without examining the precise meaning of the term. Common celebrations of improvisation’s “freedom” involve the notion that it enables dancers to escape the tyranny of the choreographer’s gaze or to present authentic or unmediated forms of self-expression or to discover new ways of moving. It’s a way, supposedly, of not engaging with restrictive forces in the external world.

To Houston-Jones, and to other scholars, however, far from representing an escape, the most skillful improvisations negotiate an ever-shifting landscape of constraints.19 One’s social and historical positions in the world affect one’s ability to move, both literally and figuratively. To ignore the constraints that improvisers inevitably encounter is to deny the real conditions that shape daily life; it is also to deny improvisation’s most significant power: as a critical engagement with the world, characterized by both flexibility and perpetual readiness. Improvised dance involves literally giving shape to oneself by deciding how to move in relation to an unsteady landscape. To engage oneself in this manner, with a sense of confidence and possibility, is a dynamic way to inhabit one’s body and to interact with the world.

(p. 315) Houston-Jones is well aware of the shifting nature of social categories and prejudices that performers inevitably encounter while improvising. In 1986, for example, he developed a score20 to use in the rehearsal process for a performance called Adolfo und Maria. In the score, which he calls “The Politics of Dancing,” Houston-Jones asks a group of people to gather in the center of a room. He then utters a pair of binary statements about identity. For example, “If you are a man, go to one wall. If you are not a man, go to the opposite wall.”21 Members of the group must make split decisions, as if standing on a railway track with a train approaching. Once on the selected side of the room, people look at the individuals close to them, searching for similarities and differences and taking note of any surprises or assumptions that the grouping reveals. The individuals then take note of the individuals across the room. Once everyone has had a chance to observe the groupings, they reassemble as a tight cluster in the center of the room. Houston-Jones then issues another pair of identifications: right-handed/left-handed; blond/not-blond; Jewish/not-Jewish; have parents who are college graduates/don’t have parent who are college graduates; want to have children/don’t want to have children, and so forth.22 Some pairs involve voluntary characteristics, whereas others do not. Some statements seem more subjective than others, and language is often fraught and open for interpretation. As Houston-Jones notes, “Defining sexuality takes quite a bit of finessing. In a single workshop ‘I AM GAY,’ ‘I AM HOMOSEXUAL,’ ‘I AM QUEER,’ ‘I HAVE INTERCOURSE ONLY WITH PEOPLE OF MY OWN GENDER’ and their ‘opposites’ can each produce very different splits in one group.”23 Typically, the group spends about forty-five minutes gathering and dispersing and then talks about their experiences for a similar amount of time.

Houston-Jones has used “The Politics of Dancing” during rehearsals, and he has presented the structure as a teaching tool in American university workshops, conferences, and international dance schools. Along the way, he has experimented with several iterations of the score: he has created situations in which the person uttering the categories changes throughout the exercise; he has asked the person speaking the categories to make only “true” statements for herself and to use first-person phrasing; and he has asked participants to close their eyes.24 He explains his motivation for these exercises:

I wanted something more multifaceted that would address the more elusive ways in which people perceive others and make assumptions about what those perceptions might mean. I wanted to explore some of the subtle and not so subtle ways people act upon those perceptions and assumptions. I also wanted people to feel what it was like to be in a minority facing a much larger group. I was interested to know which groupings caused people discomfort and which ways they liked to be grouped; when they would lie or resist the categorizing. I wanted to break down knee jerk responses and for people to look beyond the superficial things they were seeing and find the origins of the responses they were having.25

“The Politics of Dancing” explores modes of identification and highlights some of the ways in which bodies are perceived. Yet when Houston-Jones first started introducing (p. 316) this score to dancers, some of them had difficulty understanding how these things relate to “dance.” Nancy Stark Smith, a committed improviser and one of the originators of contact improvisation, recalls her first exposure to Houston-Jones’s “The Politics of Dancing” in 1988 at the European Contact Teachers Conference in Berlin: “I remember going through a range of emotions as the categories came and went and I dutifully plumbed my depths for the truest answers. Among my feelings were suspicion and irritation, as I wondered what made this ‘The Politics of Dancing,’ what this had to do with dancing at all, and what it had to do with me.”26

Although Stark Smith left “The Politics of Dancing” workshop feeling suspicious and irritated, the score has much to do with dancing, and it has relevance for performers and audience members alike. “The Politics of Dancing” is an exercise in seeing and being seen. It is an exercise that asks one to consider what it feels like to be outnumbered. It asks one to feel the pressures of categories of identity that are always too simple. It asks one to make spontaneous choices. This is the landscape in which dancing occurs, as opposed to the kind of “free” and equal space that discussions of improvisation in the arts tend to invoke. To imagine that movement holds the same implications for all bodies, or to imagine that all manners of moving are equally available or experienced in the same way, is naïve. Dancing is political, it does relate to the different identities that people have, and improvisation always occurs amidst shifting constraints. This is something that Houston-Jones helps others realize.

In the reconstruction of THEM, the strictures at play helped give the improvisations their urgency and their sense of liveness. Even though the work was “historic,” the dancers had to navigate a contemporary scene while deciding how to move. Part of this entailed reckoning with contemporary ways of being seen, not all of them pleasant. The dancers, for example, were subject to racialized responses to their style and movement choices. Niall Noel Jones, the one black dancer in the cast of young performers, recounted remarks about his “Ishmael impersonation.”27 Being involved in a dance scene with few people of color, there was a way in which, for many, Jones’s body became Houston-Jones’s body. Although this could certainly be taken as a compliment, it becomes something else when the comparison occurs merely on racial grounds. Enrico Wey, the one Asian American dancer in the cast, noted a remark made by an audience member that he must have had prior “martial arts training.”28

Beyond the social and historical constraints that informed how their bodies and movement choices were read, the dancers also had to deal with the strictures internal to the work. As the piece contained a great deal of dancing in contact, the performers needed to contend, too, with the demands made by their partners. The dancers drew from diverse experiences and techniques, including contact improvisation, vogueing, puppeteering, and more canonized modes of modern dance.29 Each style or mode of approaching movement structures the dancer’s body and entails the formation of habits. Wey, for example, mentioned in an interview that his background as a puppeteer required him to channel his energy into an object while being as invisible as possible onstage. This was a different kind of presence than what was required in THEM, particularly in a section of the dance where he had to pose and preen for Niall Noel Jones.30 (p. 317) The challenge of responding to a partner with different habits and modes of virtuosity was particularly apparent in the opening duet between Noel Jones and Felix Cruz. Jones, who moves with a weighted quality, frequently displays an awareness of his surroundings and of his partner’s choices that suggests a commitment to improvisatory practices. Cruz, on the other hand, has a tighter musculature and tends toward more recognizable modern dance sequences—turning with a leg positioned in “attitude,” flinging his arms, or spiraling quickly onto the floor. It was difficult, therefore, for subtlety to emerge in the duet, or for the dancers to release into each other—a difficulty that was fitting for this section of the dance, which, according to Houston-Jones, “is about ‘contact’ that doesn’t work. About support that disappears.”31 The dancers also had to contend with the score, which dictated a series of events with little room for the dancers to negotiate transitions. Given that the structure itself was not available for critique by the dancers, the challenge, then, became how to capitalize on possibilities within it. In addition, the dancers needed to be responsive to both Cochrane’s music and Cooper’s text, without illustrating either in a literal manner. As Houston-Jones often says, “no acting.”

Although the dancers improvised in relation to a host of complicated constraints, they felt especially affected by the weight of history and a sense of responsibility toward previous generations. When discussing critical responses to the reconstruction, many of which described the work as being young and full of technical virtuosity, Noel Jones suggested that the 1980s version wasn’t as violent as the reconstruction. Highlighting the thrashing physicality of the young dancers, he then suggested that perhaps the aggression came from imagining a community being ravaged. He suggested that perhaps the younger dancers unwittingly created a caricature of what it was like to have been making choreographic work about AIDS at that time, which resulted in a kind of aggression.32

“For Some Reason It Still Matters”

The 2010 reconstruction of THEM begins with Houston-Jones walking slowly into the dimly lit theater. He approaches another figure, Arturo Vidich, who stands with his back toward the audience. Houston-Jones gently places a hand on Vidich’s shoulder and then covers the younger man’s eyes with a white blindfold made of medical gauze, in what could be either an act of violence or protection. Houston-Jones turns Vidich around to face the audience, and then the two men perform a complex yet delicate duet. They spin each other around, and move through vulnerable points of contact, including each other’s armpits, necks, and wrists. The duet begins in silence, but eventually, once Houston-Jones drops to the floor, Cochrane introduces brooding atmospheric tones into the soundscape.33 Houston-Jones backs up slowly, until the distance between the two figures is pronounced. Another young man, Jeremy Pheiffer, emerges from upstage as Houston-Jones backs away. Pheiffer continues the duet that Houston-Jones began with the blindfolded man, only with a rougher sense of manipulation. Houston-Jones (p. 318) watches the two young men. As Pheiffer takes Vidich offstage into shadow, Houston-Jones begins a solo (see Figure 17.4).

In many ways, the solo shows a weathered man. As Houston-Jones faces the audience, one notices the bags under his eyes, dark and hanging like sacks. These bags index fatigue, but also sadness, or a kind of worldliness. His flesh appears thin and his closely cropped hair is turning grey. He is aging. Yet the solo is full of quick coils and extensions, in keeping with the rock-grunge strumming of Cochrane on his electric guitar. Wearing a plaid shirt with cut-off sleeves, rolled up jeans, and sneakers, Houston-Jones hurls himself onto the ground, kisses himself, licks his arms, and gestures in the space mournfully. He makes himself accessible to the audience, but not entirely, or not without demanding that the viewer reckon with the complexities of spectatorship. As the dancing winds down, he subtly covers his nose and mouth, and quietly leaves the performing area.

Houston-Jones did not include this solo in the 1980s version, and it functions as a prologue for the reconstruction that follows. According to the score’s notes for the solo, “Ishmael foreshadows movement motifs that will appear later also with a sense of saying good-bye and passing the material onto a new generation of performers.”34 Although the audience wouldn’t necessarily know it, Houston-Jones then finds a spot in the theater and watches the rest of the show. Enrico Wey, one of the performers in the reconstruction, explained in a recent conversation that he understood Houston-Jones’s solo as a kind of “send-off,” or a passing on of information. All of the dancers are onstage from the beginning of the show, mostly hidden in shadow, and Wey always watched the solo attentively. “It helped me to get into a sense of what we were trying to achieve,” he explained. “It was a passing on of responsibility. I’ve been called upon to do something, even if it’s not entirely clear what that something is.”35

As Houston-Jones exits the space, a spotlight emerges on Cooper, who begins to read into a microphone:

I saw them once. I don’t know when or who they were because they were too far away. But I remember certain things, like what they wore, which wasn’t anything special—pants, shirts, regular colors—stuff I’ve seen thousands of times since.

I wanted them to know something. I cupped my hands around my mouth and thought about yelling out. But they wouldn’t have heard me. Besides, I didn’t belong there. So I sat on a rock and watched them. For some reason it still matters years later.

I thought about love. I think I confused what they did with it. But my belief made the day great. I think I decided to make that my goal—to be like them. I put such incredible faith in the future that I sobbed a little I think.

I can’t believe I once felt what I’m talking about. Those tangled guys have become an abstraction, a gesture, a recreation. I wish I had taken a photo of them. Then I could rip it up, because I’m tired of dreaming of what they implied every night of my life, or whenever I close my eyes, whichever comes first. I thought it mattered. It does and it doesn’t. They’re very beautiful back there, but put all that feeling in motion now, then try to get it to explode in your face. It can’t. It’s not built to do that. (p. 319)

But they’re still there, no matter how I misremember them. And redefining whatever it was they were doing is all I can do now. To sit here and see them again, no matter how cold that looks. It wasn’t.36

The words come out slowly and with a weighted quality, as if you can feel them moving around in Cooper’s mouth. This is the text from which THEM got its name. A series of tableaux takes shape among the dancers as Cooper reads, followed by an episodic series of improvisations that invoke young men exploring gradations of desire, at times spiraling into ecstasy, while at other times buckling under its force. It’s a visceral, gritty work, full of shadows and violence. As one writer described the reconstruction, “Lit like a dank alleyway, danced in saggy tee shirts and scuffed hi-tops, the piece reeked of boy-stank.”37 There are multiple duets throughout the work that suggest both attraction and repulsion and oscillate between seeing and being seen. The dancers pose, preen, and grope, frequently hurling themselves with abandon. There’s a section of the dance called “Dead Friends,” in which Cooper recites a litany of deaths by various causes (suicide, a car accident, cancer, but notably not AIDS) as Pheiffer bats pennies with a two-by-four. With each death, one sees the glint of a penny tossed into the air. One hears the thin sound of coin on wood, followed by the muted sound of the coin hitting the brick wall upstage and then landing on the floor. There’s a wrenching solo that explores the pleasure and shame of touching oneself, and a cruising section where two dancers move in a channel of light: tentatively posing for one another, then stalking, and then outright chasing one another. One dancer gets pushed repeatedly onto a mattress, and others get pinned against a wall.

The partnering in THEM involves volatility, risk, and a sense of the unknown in personal encounters, all of which are amplified by the improvised nature of the dancing. Because the movements aren’t predetermined, there’s always the chance of a collision or a missed connection. As Deborah Jowitt wrote in her Village Voice review, “Because they improvise their movements based on a score created by Houston-Jones, their physicality has a reckless edge. They bang into one another sometimes, stumble into or out of embraces, or fall with a crash. Watching Niall Noel and Felix Cruz tussle near the beginning, I think of contact improvisation performed at the edge of a precipice.”38

Toward the end of THEM, Pheiffer enters the space with a goat carcass slung over his shoulders.39 The gamey stench of the decomposing animal fills the theater as Pheiffer leads Vidich, the blindfolded young man from the overture, into the stage-space. Vidich now wears white underwear and a backward, white dress shirt. His feet are bare. Pheiffer tosses the carcass onto the mattress, then turns and throws Vidich onto the mattress as well. Vidich then wrestles with the goat on the mattress in a scene that is unabashedly sexual, violent, and full of despair. He strokes and pulls the flaccid carcass; he straddles it with his legs while grabbing onto one of its horns; at one point, he even thrusts his head inside the animal. According to Houston-Jones, who originally danced the role and has since described it as his most terrifying performance experience,40 “The mattress and animal carcass were a sort of acknowledgment of AIDS. People were dying—friends, people we knew. There was panic. The carcass on the mattress came from a dream my (p. 320) friend had. In it he woke up and he was lying next to his own dead body; he would try to throw it out of bed, but it kept coming back on top of him.”41 After the goat dance concludes, Pheiffer, who has been watching the whole time, covers Vidich, except for his bare feet, with a white sheet.

Soon afterward, the performers re-enter the space one by one. The young men have taken off their shoes and changed into underclothes. Some of them are bare-chested, while others wear undershirts. This simple attire renders them vulnerable. Moreover, it suggests a private, intimate space. They all face the audience. The frontal nature of this sequence—distinct from the rest of the work—gives the impression that the young men are standing in front of mirrors. The performers then slowly palpate their bodies, roaming from throat to groin to underarms as if checking the size of their lymph nodes (see Figure 17.5). Meanwhile, Pheiffer takes a piece of paper from Cooper and reads a truncated version of the opening monologue with downcast eyes and an inflection similar to Cooper’s:

  • I saw them once
  • I don’t know when or who they were
  • I’m too far away
  • I remember certain things
  • What they wore
  • I wanted them to know something
  • It still matters
  • I thought about love
  • I put such incredible faith in the future
  • I can’t believe I once felt
  • I wish I had taken a photo
  • I could rip it up.42

As Cooper stands by, with his grey hair and quiet slouch, while Pheiffer reads his text, it becomes apparent that this is no straightforward reconstruction. The three older men in the piece (Cooper, Cochrane, and Houston-Jones) testify to an earlier time, and their presence adds layers of temporal complexity that were not in the original work. Cooper recited most of the same words in the 1986 performance. Although his voice is familiar in video recordings of the original performances, the cadence is quicker, and he’s a young man in his thirties with dark hair and a thin frame. He looks no different in age than the rest of the 1980s cast. Now, though, it’s striking to see a young man reciting text that is so retrospective and melancholic. In Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place, Halberstam argues that “there is such a thing as ‘queer time’ and ‘queer space’ … that develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identification.”43 Halberstam notes that queer time emerged with particular poignancy from within gay communities during the height of the AIDS crisis. As the poet Thom Gunn wrote, “My thoughts are crowded with death/and it draws so oddly on the sexual/that I am confused/confused to be attracted/by, in effect, my own annihilation.”44 (p. 321) For some, the devastation caused by the virus resulted in an investment in the present moment and a challenge to conventional narratives of longevity and aging. Perhaps the young Cooper in 1986 was speaking in distinctly queer time. Moreover, perhaps, if not exactly “dancing for their lives” as the original cast did in 1985 at the P.S. 122 AIDS benefit of the same name, the younger dancers were improvising in order to imagine and experience a kind of queer temporality where, as Halberstam suggests, ways of aging and of forging relations with others exist outside of the dominant story of how one should mature: “birth, marriage, reproduction, and death.”45 The fact that these queer temporal imaginings were improvised meant they were necessarily embodied, flexible, and contingent, and that the dancers were ultimately responsible for the choices they made in performance.

When asked what it was like to improvise with Cochrane, Cooper, and Houston-Jones present, Noel Jones mentioned that the dancers were “flanked” by the three older men, who are spatially more fixed than anyone (they perform from specific locations that stay the same throughout the show) and therefore create a kind of structural boundary for the work. The younger cast of dancers felt beholden to the trio, as well as to the many people who had fallen through history due to AIDS. Reflecting on the dancers’ need to consider their connections to various queer lineages, Jones remarked, “We’re enacting something that requires a kind of mentorship” (see Figure 17.6).46 He then talked about the way in which Houston-Jones brought his dancers verbally and physically into the work, recognizing the importance of critical conversation but also believing that, ultimately, (p. 322) embodied practice was necessary for the explorations at hand. Jones, as well as several of the other dancers, noted that Houston-Jones has his likes and dislikes, but their precise nature wasn’t clear to the dancers. He gave them just enough information to proceed, without overly prescribing the end result. Rather than show the younger cast extensive video documentation from the 1986 performances, which might have overdetermined their improvisations, he showed imagery that informed the original creation of the work, by artists such as Francis Bacon, Gilbert and George, and Eadweard Muybridge (see Figures 17.7 and 17.8). The dancer Ben Van Buren noted that the work demanded a level of nuance, but that it wasn’t dictated. Rather, it was something he had to find through improvisation.47 Niall Noel Jones talked about trying to access cultural and physical memories of community, or of fallen comrades, through dancing. For him, the lymph node section was explicitly about this, given the extent to which the score required gestures of self-diagnosis. Houston-Jones was very specific about where the dancers should be touching. But the search for cultural memory occurred in the more improvised sections of the dance as well, perhaps in more compelling ways. According to Jones, “The dancers had just come from forty minutes of feeling—of being a thrown body—feeling through the wreck of it.”48 This feeling matters, for both the performers and the audience. In conversation, Wey mentioned that, while improvising, he sometimes found himself wondering what kind of sense memories a given movement or gesture would trigger for viewers who had experienced loss or who had seen the work in the 1980s.

Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEMClick to view larger

Figure 17.6 Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper, and Chris Cochrane. Rehearsal at The New Museum (2010).

Photograph by Christy Pessagno.

Because Houston-Jones took a long time to assign roles, the dancers performed everything in rehearsals and spent a long time watching each other in various relationships. Watching Houston-Jones was particularly important for the younger dancers. As Wey explained, “There’s so much history in watching Ishmael’s patterns and timing.”49 Jennifer (p. 323) Monson, a choreographer who has followed Houston-Jones’s work for decades, also sensed history within his solo, which, for her, was the same dance that he’s been performing for thirty-five years. This was not at all a disparaging comment. Rather, Monson was referring to Houston-Jones’s timing, and the ways in which he makes himself available to a spectator’s gaze before recoiling.50 As Houston-Jones wrote in 1987, “a lot of my work has to do with invisibility—hiding identity to survive artistically, or revealing identity to be subversive artistically. I try to subvert invisibility through performance—to bring what’s invisible out into the open. As a black man in mostly white downtown performance, I became fascinated with the idea of invisibility. … I’m asking people not to accept certain conventions as either the norm or as an acceptable way of life. I am going back and searching for roots in some sense: performance roots, personal roots, historical roots.”51

Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEMClick to view larger

Figure 17.7 Eadweard Muybridge, Wrestling; Graeco-Roman (1887). Plate from Muybridge’s “Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements, 1872–1885.”

© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library.

Improvised Dance in the Reconstruction of THEMClick to view larger

Figure 17.8 Gilbert & George, Existers (1984).

The notion that movement patterns and timing contain history is crucial when considering the political stakes of the reconstruction of THEM. As Muñoz argues, “Gestures transmit ephemeral knowledge of lost queer histories and possibilities.”52 According to Muñoz, in order to access queer histories within a straight world one often needs to turn to ephemera, which he describes as “trace, the remains, the things that are left.”53 When the younger dancers began the reconstruction process and many of them felt as though they had no connection to HIV/AIDS, Houston-Jones insisted that the knowledge exists somewhere inside of them. Once the performers began to share their stories and move together, connections and experiences that were deeply embedded in the dancers’ subconscious minds and in their bodies began to surface. Muñoz continues: (p. 324)

Ephemera are the remains that are often embedded in queer acts, in both stories we tell one another and communicative physical gestures such as the cool look of a street cruise, a lingering handshake between recent acquaintances, or the mannish strut of a particularly confident woman.54

Muñoz refers to the evidence of queer desire embedded in acts such as the “cool look of a street cruise,” performed when someone moves through a public locale in search of sex. It’s a cruise-y world that Cooper describes in his text: “I used to dream of situations like this. A group of guys; me among them. Guys so near you reach out your arms, you just put out your arms and come back with this beautiful thing, this guy. … I’m going to stroll around now and keep my eyes out for you know what.”55 Yet the “cruising” sequence in THEM seemed particularly dated to the dancers and, as a result, particularly challenged them as improvisers. Noel Jones, who performed the section with Wey in the P.S. 122 reconstruction, noted that their job was not to represent cruising, but to actually experience it. He then explained, “Cruising involves seeing and being seen, and making desire public. Cruising is a practice. It is performative. It is the performance of something missing. It makes present the absence of what you’re dying to find.”56 He then remarked, “There’s no real cruising in the city today. Gay culture is so mediatized. We’re pulled into other spaces where we see each other. Queerness has shifted to digital space.”57

Whether or not cruising really has disappeared, and whether or not queerness has really moved wholesale to digital spaces, there has been a cultural shift noted by several of the dancers. In that respect, the cruising section provided an instance where, to quote Halberstam, “different histories ‘touch’ or brush up against each other, creating temporal havoc in the key of desire.”58 Van Buren, who performed Wey’s role when the reconstruction of THEM toured the Netherlands in spring 2011, noted, “Many of the ways I’ve learned about sexual behavior have been very different from what takes place in THEM.59 He continued, “This felt like something from a different era. … I won’t say that homosexuality doesn’t have the same alterity as it did in the eighties, but something is very different now. The market is much more able to respond to and to exploit gay life. Moreover, the spaces of violence in THEM are locatable—in the bedroom, in a phone booth, on a mattress. It’s not that those spaces don’t exist anymore, but they’re much more porous.”60 Van Buren then referred to Cooper’s opening text to explain, “Witnessing a sexuality that is so clearly located on a rock feels impossible now.”61

“I Wish I Had Taken a Photo/ I Could Rip It Up”

In a review of THEM that appeared on Movement Research’s online site, Critical Correspondence, Lindsey Drury, a dancer who had studied with Houston-Jones, criticized the extent to which the reconstruction of THEM relied on the original precepts (p. 325) from the 1980s. She wondered, for example, how the work would change if women had been invited to the audition, or how the work might shift if it were opened up to include transgender bodies. “What would be lost?” she asked. “What could be gained?”62 Wondering about the goal of a “purist reconstruction,” she then exclaimed, “I can’t imagine Houston-Jones as an artist who is seeking to make a history text of himself, especially while he is very much alive.”63 Presumably, Drury was referring to Houston-Jones’s modest and at times self-effacing demeanor. But Houston-Jones offered a spirited response to Drury:

You are wrong on one point: I am “an artist who is seeking to make a history text of himself, especially while he is very much alive.” I really care about how my work is seen and that it is seen and remembered. I understand your point. I have Scorcese-envy. No one will ever question another screening of “Taxi Driver” as valid. The wonderful and terrible thing about live arts, especially dance, is that it happens, it is witnessed and then it is gone. Its ephemeral nature is its strength and its weakness.64

Both dance scholars and critics have struggled with the ephemerality of dance.65 In At the Vanishing Point, A Critic Looks at Dance, Marcia Siegel voices the widely held belief that dance constitutes the ephemeral art par excellence. “No other art is so hard to catch,” she writes, “so impossible to hold.”66 But is the ephemeral nature of dance necessarily something that one must resist? In Cruising Utopia, Muñoz pays particular attention to Kevin Aviance—a tall, black club dancer who performs high femme drag—whose gestures highlight the pleasure of queer desires that are often subject to censorship or cruel dismissal. Elaborating on the materiality of queer dancing more broadly, Muñoz argues:

Queer dance is hard to catch, and it is meant to be hard to catch—it is supposed to slip through the fingers and comprehension of those who would use knowledge against us. But it matters and takes on a vast material weight for those of us who perform or draw important sustenance from performance. Rather than dematerialize, dance rematerializes. Dance, like energy, never disappears; it is simply transformed. Queer dance, after the live act, does not just expire. The ephemeral does not equal unmateriality. It is more nearly about another understanding of what matters. It matters to get lost in dance or to use dance to get lost: lost from the evidentiary logic of heterosexuality. For queers, the gesture and its aftermath, the ephemeral trace, matter more than many traditional modes of evidencing lives and politics.67

When Cooper and later Pheiffer state, “I wish I had taken a photo/I could rip it up,” they are signaling the complex ways in which gestures—whether those of “tangled guys” viewed from a rock, or those of young men “dancing for their lives” at P.S. 122—have the capacity to nestle in the minds and bodies of their witnesses. In some cases, that nestling can be painful; but it also can entail a kind of pleasure. Those guys and their gestures still matter. And when Muñoz argues that “it matters to get lost in dance or to use dance to get lost,” he is not talking about some disabling disorientation; rather, he is highlighting the production and the experience of “queer time” in Halberstam’s (p. 326) sense. The young dancers in the reconstruction of THEM were using dance to explore and present organizations of time that resist a forward march of direct progress, and they were using dance to explore multiple ways in which men relate to other men. Through improvisation, the dancers opened themselves up to ghostly presences and made spontaneous choices in a way that acknowledged the past—in a felt, bodily way—while gesturing toward a future. Perhaps it’s a future where dancers know and can state with conviction that their dancing matters. Perhaps it’s also a future where expansive possibilities exist for relating to others—for expressing and acting upon desire—not just in virtual spaces, but also on the ground. When Van Buren returned from performing THEM on a recent tour to the Netherlands, he was able to draw from his staged experience of cruising. He had received some schooling in seduction and was able read gestures differently and to meet a stranger’s gaze. The New York City streets felt different.

Works Cited List

Baker, Houston A. Jr. Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

    Cooper, Dennis. “THEM.” Spank NYC Art Zine and Party 17 (January 25, 2011).Find this resource:

      Drozdowski, Anna and Ishmael Houston-Jones. “Dance Talk: Q&A with Ishmael Houston-Jones.” Last modified February 16, 2010.

      Drury, Lindsey. “Response: Lindsey Drury on Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane’s THEM, with a Reply from Ishmael.” Critical Correspondence. Accessed February 2, 2013,

      Gere, David. How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.Find this resource:

        Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005.Find this resource:

          Houston-Jones, Ishmael. “On Burt Supree.” “Heroes and Histories.” Special issue, Movement Research Performance Journal 6 (Spring/Summer 1993). this resource:

            Houston-Jones, Ishmael. “A Dance of Identity: Notes on the Politics of Dancing.” Contact Quarterly 21, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 1996): 11–13.Find this resource:

              Houston-Jones, Ishmael. “Ishmael Houston-Jones FAQ.”, accessed December 17, 2012.

              Houston-Jones, Ishmael. “Ishmael Houston-Jones.” Artforum. Last modified September 26, 2010.

              Jowitt, Deborah. “From Switzerland, Ireland, and the U.S.: Guys on Guys.” The Village Voice, January 12, 2011.

              Kourlas, Gia. “Ishmael Houston-Jones: The ’80s are back with THEM.” TimeOut New York, September 20, 2010.

              Lepecki, André. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. London: Routledge, 2006.Find this resource:

                Moten, Fred. “Taste Flavor Dissonance Escape: Preface for a Solo by Miles Davis.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 17, no. 2 (2007): 217–246.Find this resource:

                  Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                    Robinson, Marc, Ishmael Houston-Jones, John Kelly, Karen Finley, and Richard Elovich. “Performance Strategies.” Performing Arts Journal 10, no. 3 (1987): 31–55.Find this resource:

                      Siegel, Marcia. At the Vanishing Point: A Critic Looks at Dance. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.Find this resource:

                        Stark Smith, Nancy. “A Subjective History of Contact Improvisation: Notes from the Editor of Contact Quarterly, 1972–1997.” In Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader, edited by Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere, 153–174. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                          Supree, Burt. “Men with Men.” The Village Voice, December 22, 1986.Find this resource:

                            THEM—Ishmael Houston-Jones op Springdance.” YouTube video, 6:20. Uploaded by “Cultureel Persbureau,” April 22, 2011. Accessed February 4, 2013.


                            (1.) Burt Supree, “Men with Men,” The Village Voice, December 22, 1986.

                            (2.) David Gere, How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 79.

                            (3.) In a recent e-mail correspondence, Houston-Jones noted that several animal rights activists wrote letters of protest in response to the 1986 performance run at PS 122, and someone wrote a letter of complaint to the Board of Health. Mark Russell asked Houston-Jones if he would consider using a taxidermic animal for the second week of the performance. Houston-Jones said no to the request. Ishmael Houston-Jones, e-mail message to author, February 2, 2013.

                            (4.) Ishmael Houston-Jones, “On Burt Supree,” in “Heroes and Histories,” special issue, Movement Research Performance Journal 6 (Spring/Summer 1993),

                            (8.) Gia Kourlas, “Ishmael Houston-Jones: The ’80s Are Back with THEM,” TimeOut New York, September 20, 2010.

                            (9.) Ishmael Houston-Jones, interview with the author, December 17, 2010, New York, NY.

                            (10.) THEM—Ishmael Houston-Jones op Springdance,” YouTube video, 6:20, uploaded by “Cultureel Persbureau,” April 22, 2011,

                            (11.) José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 34.

                            (13.) Niall Noel Jones, interview with the author, May 19, 2011, New York, NY.

                            (15.) Anna Drozdowski and Ishmael Houston-Jones, “Dance Talk: Q&A with Ishmael Houston-Jones,” last modified February 16, 2010,

                            (16.) In conversation, Ishmael mentioned that several of the younger dancers involved in the reconstruction of THEM had studied improvisation in college and elsewhere, so it wasn’t entirely new to them. But it wasn’t as radical as it had felt in the 1980s. He noted, “The times didn’t feel as urgent to them, perhaps.” Ishmael Houston-Jones, interview with the author, December 12, 2010, New York, NY.

                            (18.) Jennifer Monson, interview with the author, May 18, 2011, New York, NY.

                            (19.) In my recent book, I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), I refer to these constraints as “tight places,” a term that comes from Houston Baker’s Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001). I also turn to Fred Moten’s writings, particularly “Taste Flavor Dissonance Escape: Preface for a Solo by Miles Davis,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 17, no. 2 (2007): 217–246, and Michel Foucault’s late writings on practices of freedom in order to argue that improvisation’s keenest political power exists as an ongoing engagement with social, historical, and aesthetic strictures.

                            (20.) Different versions of these exercises have been used for years by activists outside the dance world.

                            (21.) Ishmael Houston-Jones, “A Dance of Identity: Notes on the Politics of Dancing,” Contact Quarterly 21, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 1996): 11–13,

                            (26.) Nancy Stark Smith, “A Subjective History of Contact Improvisation: Notes from the Editor of Contact Quarterly, 1972–1997,” in Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader, ed. Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press: 2003), 169.

                            (28.) Enrico Wey, interview with the author, June 4, 2011, New York, NY.

                            (31.) Ishmael Houston-Jones, THEM (unpublished manuscript reconstruction score).

                            (33.) The improvised score for THEM includes live electric guitar played by Cochrane, along with accordion, keyboards, percussion, and tapes.

                            (34.) Movement score for THEM, provided by Ishmael Houston-Jones.

                            (36.) Dennis Cooper, “THEM,” Spank NYC Art Zine and Party 17 (January 25, 2011).

                            (37.) Lindsey Drury, “Response: Lindsey Drury on Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane’s THEM, with a Reply from Ishmael,”

                            (38.) Deborah Jowitt, “From Switzerland, Ireland, and the U.S.: Guys on Guys,” The Village Voice, January 12, 2011,

                            (39.) In an interview with the author (December 17, 2010), Houston-Jones noted that the goat did a lot of work for the process. Much of what the piece was about was purely theoretical for the dancers until the goat arrived. They got it from a Halal butcher, who kept saying that it would be ready soon. They got it just before the dress rehearsal. This was the first time that the dancers worked with the dead animal. It had only just been killed. It was still warm. And it hadn’t been drained. It bled, a lot. They weren’t prepared for what that body would do to the work. The dress rehearsal was crazy and the work transformed itself. Wey (interview with the author) noted that every night after the performance at P.S. 122, they’d need to put the goat into a freezer. Before the show, they’d have to give it a warm bath and pat it down to dry it. They used three goats during the performance run. The carcasses weren’t buried until about a month later.

                            (40.) Ishmael Houston-Jones, “Ishmael Houston-Jones FAQ,”, accessed December 17, 2012.

                            (41.) Ishmael Houston-Jones as told to David Velasco, “Ishmael Houston-Jones,” Artforum, September 26, 2010,

                            (43.) Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 1.

                            (47.) Ben Van Buren, interview with the author, May 19, 2011, New York, NY.

                            (51.) Marc Robinson, Ishmael Houston-Jones, John Kelly, Karen Finley, and Richard Elovich, “Performance Strategies,” Performing Arts Journal 10, no. 3 (1987): 36.

                            (65.) See André Lepecki’s Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 125.

                            (66.) Marcia Siegel, At the Vanishing Point: A Critic Looks at Dance (New York: Saturday Review Press: 1972), 1.