Ishmael Houston-Jones' THEM Returns To Performance Space New York, June 21-28
Performance Space New York's East Village Series, the first themed series under the leadership of Executive Artistic Director Jenny Schlenzka, has reexamined the audacious origins of the organization and the communities that formed around it. In 1986, choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, composer/guitarist Chris Cochrane, writer Dennis Cooper, and an ensemble of dancers performed the first full version of THEM, an unblinking interdisciplinary work of scored improvisational dance, spoken text, and guitar, at what was then Performance Space 122. Audiences were presented not only with an unapologetic and nuanced depiction of gay male sexuality, but also confronted with a chillingly coded vision of the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Performance Space brings Houston-Jones, Cochrane, and Cooper back into the renovated space for a timely remounting of the work that concludes the East Village Series, June 21-28. The cast also includes Alvaro Gonzalez Dupuy, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Michael Parmelee, Jeremy Pheiffer, Kensaku Shinohara, Michael Watkiss, and Hentyle Yapp.
The AIDS epidemic brought devastation to the Downtown artist community. Some of Performance Space New York's most influential artists (John Bernd, Ethyl Eichelberger, Ron Vawter, David Wojnarowicz among many others) died prematurely, leaving a gaping hole in this community and a subsequent generation without important mentorship. When Ishmael Houston-Jones first started working on THEM at Performance Space 122 in 1985, with Dennis Cooper's text and a cacophonous live electric guitar score by Chris Cochrane, it was intended to be a poetic and frank coming-of-age story of gay men. By the time it was first premiered at Performance Space 122 in 1986, AIDS was ravaging queer communities, and the artists felt it would be disingenuous not to address it in the work. They consequently included coded allusions to the epidemic.
Houston-Jones describes in Artforum having drawn from a dream his friend recounted to him, in which "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." THEM became one of the most haunting works of art that came out of the early AIDS years, and one of the most enduringly potent works to have been developed and performed at Performance Space 122.
As Houston-Jones himself recalls, THEM was not at first met favorably by members of the gay community and gay press who felt confronted by the reminder of the tragedies that were all around them. Some people walked out. As decades have passed and those years of loss have grown more distant, THEM's audience reception has drastically changed; when it toured in 2010, Houston-Jones recalls people throwing flowers and giving standing ovations in both New York and Europe. Younger generations, more removed from the tragedy, want to acknowledge these histories. The public has become more willing to talk and learn about the lives lost to AIDS and the homophobic conditions that allowed the government to take a stance of violent inaction.
When THEM returned to Performance Space 122 for the organization's 30th anniversary in 2010, Claudia La Rocco wrote in the New York Times that through its improvisational movement, men "come and go onstage in waves of bodies, held by Mr. Cochrane's muscular, sexy guitar playing and Mr. Cooper's quiet, elegant reading...THEM is poetic and disturbing, backed by the full force of its history without being diminished by it." She noted then that it read differently than it had in 1986. Surely, in 2018 America, with its confounding mix of social awareness and vast social regression, it will read differently once again.
Houston-Jones says, "I'm really happy that Jenny [Schlenzka] asked us and other people who were pioneers in the older space to come back, to be connecting to that time, so that it's not an erasure of the history of the space and the organization. The East Village was my first New York home. I still live here, and the community has been missing Performance Space as a center, and they're really celebrating its return."
Beyond THEM, the East Village Series, which contemplates the past, present, and future of the art organization and its immediate neighborhood, has featured events and performances such as Welcome to Lenapehoking and Performance Space New York's longest-running-program, Avant Garde Arama; dance performance by Yve Laris Cohen and screenings of Diamanda Galás and Davide Pepe's Schrei 27; a month devoted to the legacy and spirit of Kathy Acker; an extended theatrical runway presentation from counter cultural fashion-oriented project Women's History Museum; and May 2018/, a new dance work from Sarah Michelson, who returned to Performance Space New York after a 13-year hiatus. Upcoming events in the series include Penny Arcade's iconic Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! (May 11-19); a skate-park, skate sessions, workshops, and the third annual Anti-Prom (May 25) from feminist art collective BRUJAS (May 25-June 9); and a Kiki Ball hosted by the Alliance for Positive Change (June 16).
(Photo Credit: Dona Ann McAdams)
Tickets and Schedule
THEM will be performed at Performance Space New York (150 1st Avenue, NY, NY 10009) June 21, 22, 25, 26, 27 & 28 at 7:30pm, and June 23 at 3pm. On June 27, there will be a post-show talk with Visual AIDS. Full price tickets are $25, and student/senior tickets are $15; they can be purchased at performancespacenewyork.org.
About Ishmael Houston-Jones
Ishmael Houston-Jones is a choreographer, author, performer, teacher, and curator whose improvised dance and text work has been performed in New York City, across the United States, in Europe, Canada, Australia and Latin America. In 1984 Houston-Jones and Fred Holland shared a New York Dance and Performance "Bessie Award" for their Cowboys, Dreams and Ladders. In 2011 he won another "Bessie Award" for the reimagining of THEM, his 1986 collaboration with composer Chris Cochrane and author Dennis Cooper. Houston-Jones was awarded his third "Bessie" in 2017 for Variations on Themes from Lost and Found and Other Works by John Bernd. Houston-Jones curated Platform 2012: Parallels that examined Black dance makers and Postmodernism and he curated Platform 2016: Lost and Found that investigated the effect that the loss of a generation of artists from HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 90s has had on work made by young queer artists today. Both platforms were held at Danspace Project in New York. Ishmael Houston-Jones' essays, interviews, and performance texts have been anthologized in numerous books, magazines and journals.
About Chris Cochrane
Chris Cochrane is a songwriter and guitarist who has been playing in New York since the 1980s. Chris has played with Thurston Moore, Zeena Parkins, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Billy Martin, Eszter Balint, Mike Patton, Henry Kaiser, Andrea Centazzo, Annie Gosfield, Tim Hodgkinson, Miguel Frasconi, Richard Buckner, Davey Williams, Ladonna Smith and Jim Pugliese. He has composed music for Dennis Cooper, John Jasperse, Neil Greenberg, Nayland Blake, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Jennifer Monson and Circus Amok.He was in the bands No Safety and Curlew, and is currently in Collapsible Shoulder with Brian Chase, Kato Hideki and Kevin Bud Jones and Bee Line with Billy Martin and Kato Hideki.
About Dennis Cooper
Dennis Cooper was born on January 10, 1953, grew up in the Southern California, and became serious about writing at 15, after reading Arthur Rimbaud and The Marquis de Sade. While at Flintridge Preparatory School for Boys in La Canada, he met his friend George Miles, who would become his muse and the subject of much of his future writing. In 1976, he founded Little Caesar Magazine and Press, which he ran until 1982. From 1980 to 1983 he was Director of Programming for the Beyond Baroque Literary/Art Center in Venice, California. From 1983 to 1985, he lived in New York City. In 1985, he moved to Amsterdam for two-and-a-half years, where he began his ten-year-long project, The George Miles Cycle, an interconnected sequence of five novels that includes Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period. His post-George Miles Cycle novels include My Loose Thread, The Sluts and God, Jr. Other works include the short-story collections Wrong and Ugly Man, poetry collections The Dream Police and The Weaklings, as well as Smothered in Hugs: Essays, Interviews, Feedback, and Obituaries.
About Performance Space New York
Founded as Performance Space 122, in 1980, from an explosion of radical self-expression amidst the intensifying American culture wars, Performance Space New York is the birthplace of contemporary performance as it is known today. The early acts that defined the organization's unique role in New York cultural history asserted themselves as living, fleeting, and crucially affordable alternatives to mainstream art and culture of the 1980s and early 90s. Emboldened by the inclusive haven of a tight knit group of artists, performers like Penny Arcade, Ron Athey, Ethyl Eichelberger, Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Holly Hughes, John Kelly, John Leguizamo, Tim Miller, and Carmelita Tropicana, among many others, engaged in radical experimentation and created hybrid works that existed somewhere between dance, theater, poetry, ritual, film, technology and music.
With the renovation and reimagining of its original abandoned public-school building in the East Village completed, Performance Space New York is entering a new, bracing chapter. Under the leadership of recently appointed Executive Artistic Director Jenny Schlenzka, and with state-of-the-art, column-free, high-ceilinged performance spaces, the organization is poised to make a case for the cultural vitality and relevance of performance for the 21st century. Schlenzka brings the idea of themed series to Performance Space New York. As part of a larger multidimensional whole, individual works are juxtaposed to evoke further meaning and push audiences to engage with our contemporary world in illuminating ways. The inaugural series (February-June) in the renovated building focuses on the East Village itself, including the institution's iconic history, re-anchoring the organization within its immediate surroundings.
Returning to a rapidly changing neighborhood during a time marked by divisive and oppressive politics, Performance Space New York builds on its own traditions of integration, political involvement and vehement interdisciplinarity, embodied by artists like niv Acosta, Big Dance Theater, Annie Dorsen, Elevator Repair Service, Tim Etchells, Maria Hassabi, Emily Johnson, Young Jean Lee, Taylor Mac, Richard Maxwell, Sarah Michelson, Rabih Mroué, Okwui Okpokwasili, Reggie Watts, and Adrienne Truscott.
Performance Space New York's lasting presence from the pre-gentrification East Village neighborhood fervently aims to create an open environment for artists and audiences, and thus foster community through performance and discourse-to be a countering force to the often-exclusionary nature of urban development.