Chapter Two

Ishmael Houston-Jones2017

TDF:
6.                                                                                
So we turn around the bend and back toward our first query to bring up the rear … lost and found sounds to be concerned with people and things that were and are not anymore, but are somehow still here anyway; concerned with how change changes things. Can you talk about your own creative work in terms of how things arrive and dissemble; how you have restaged your own works, even as you make new work, how does change change for you? 
IHJ: 
The two bromides about change that immediately came to mind were that “change is the only constant,” and, of course, “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” which sounds much better in French. But as hackneyed and contradictory as these two old saws may be, I do believe that my belief in “change” is contained in both of them.
 
A circuitous detour that hopefully will bring me back to your question: Between the time when we began this email dialogue and now, my best friend, collaborator and foil Fred Holland died of colon cancer. And although life had to continue, in the face of choreographing the memorial celebration, writing the eulogy and dealing with the families (blood and chosen) of someone I knew, loved and made art with for over 40 years, things like conversations about aesthetics, deadlines and awards became very, very unimportant. This is neither an apology nor an excuse for a certain lack of focus, but just a reminder that real life events can change a predetermined trajectory. How this relates to your last question: in planning the service for Fred, I enlisted the help of Cathy Weis, a video artist who documented much of a certain subset of Downtown dance and performance work in the 1980s and 90s. I knew she had footage of Fred and we spent several days looking through her archive. Among the pieces we found was a 1983 untitled duet Fred and I made for Contact at 2nd and 10th, a mini-festival at Danspace Project that commemorated the tenth anniversary of Steve Paxton codifying what would become the form known as Contact Improvisation. Since the 1980s I had only seen a four-minute clip of the 30-minute footage, (the duet was about 15 minutes long and was performed on two consecutive days.) I have shown the four-minute version in many of my improvisation and composition classes. I always share the tongue-in-cheek score that Fred and I used as prompts for the dance. Because the raison d’être of the festival was Contact Improvisation, Fred and I created a manifesto (known only to ourselves at the time), that we would do a C.I. duet but we would break every rule of C.I. orthodoxy. 
 

Even though we never stated the rules of our Manifesto, they were very obvious and people viewing the clip would readily comment on these violations of the form. But now, after watching the 30 minutes of the two performances I see the true revolutionary content of our work. And I don’t use the term “revolutionary” casually. A dance done in mid-late 20th century speaks to real 21st century perspectives of race, gender, homoeroticism, masculinity, power dynamics, narrative, aesthetics, composition, Dancing While Black and much more. Watching the two different performances, in which the constants were the cast, the space, the costuming, and the sound-score determining duration, it amazes me how different the resulting dances are one from the other. Yet, also, how much the same they are. A narrative forms concerning two Black men on display together in a space that is most often occupied by Whites. And it being a modern/postmodern dance space, by White females. The audience was largely, if not entirely, non-Black. The sexuality of the two men is ambiguous and constantly flowing against histories of (Black) masculinity. In reality I would characterize both Fred and me as “queer” in the 21st century performance studies sense, though Fred’s expression of queerness was exclusively heterosexual while mine was more fluid. That is to say that no, we weren’t nor had we ever been sexual lovers, though that scenario was persistent in the public discourse of our collaborations and admittedly, implicit in much of our work. As Fred often said, “Two Black men on stage together and not killing each other or rapping, what else are people going to think?”

 
But the piece is revolutionary in its composition and aesthetics as well. The way that Fred and I synced, disrupted, and played counterpoint with one another while still holding onto the essence of the piece is brilliant, even to me, who usually takes self-criticism to the extreme when watching video documentation of myself performing. I don’t understand how we were doing what we were doing so seemingly without effort. Effort of thought that is; there was plenty of sweat testifying to physical effort. In 15 minutes the duets shifted from playful stalking to Butoh-like slow-motion; from acrobatics and martial arts to actual wrestling; from cool postmodern abstract dancing to postures of hands-up don’t shoot; from self-referential conversation to violent or tender carnality. These shifts often happen without visible preparation or logical transition. And I never remember rehearsing for this performance. We used to go out to the Pyramid Club, the Palladium and Limelight and dance until the wee hours. Those were our studios. That was our rehearsal. That was our process. The end result was this phenomenon that was so raw and yet so very complex. It can never be reproduced because it was such a distinct expression of who Fred and I were at that time, in that place.
 
So yes: Change. Lost and found. Ghosts and hauntings. Finding these videos shot by Lisa Nelson and Cathy Weis that had been stored on VHS tapes in an archive box for 33 years, seen in full by only a few people, which did not include Fred or me, revealed some crucial truths. This duet was the genesis of much of my future work. From the “Bessie” Award winning Cowboys, Dreams, and Ladders that Fred Holland and I made the following year, 1984, to the original dance score for THEM in 1985-86 and my solo overture in its 2010 revival, to Unsafe/Unsuited made in collaboration with Keith Hennessy and Patrick Scully in 1995 to my two solos in 13 Love Songs: dot dot dot made with Emily Wexler in 2014. All these pieces had their foundation in that inimitable untitled duet, (called Oo-Ga-La by Fred and me) in 1983. 
 
Today I am friends with young parents who were not yet born when Oo-Ga-La was performed. But in some ways it may be, in 2016, the most contemporary dance I will have ever done. In viewing the lost then found soft-focus, sometimes blurry images of 32-year-old Fred Holland and me performing this singular dance does have a haunted and ghostly quality. Not only is Fred now no longer with us, but I am also inhabited, in a good way, by that manifestation of my former self that still resides in me. And through the ancient technology of video recording, something of this dance remains to inspire me to go onward to the next thing, be it a finished novel or a curated series or a dance. And it may inspire others in ways I cannot begin to imagine.
Fred Holland & Ishmael Houston-Jones at Contact at 2nd and 10th, 1983
 
 ""I’m still interested in what it means to place human bodies moving through space and time in front of witnesses, aka creating dance performances. But I want to actually pursue writing..."" - IHJ
 
"Unsafe Unsuited," 1995.
 
"This Ring of Fire," collaboration with Dan Safer, 2009, Dance New Amsterdam, NY.
 
Our Manifesto:
  • • We are Black
  • o (Contact, first performed at Oberlin College in 1973, remained in 1983 and remains still a dance form done largely by people who are not Black and are liberal arts educated.)
  • • We will wear street clothes
  • o (Contactors most often wore baggy, soft sweats with little attention paid to style.)
  • • We will wear heavy boots
  • o (Contact was always performed in bare feet and Fred and I were very punk rock; I wore combat boots and Fred wore construction worker boots. We used to be chastised for wearing boots at contact jams.)
  • • We will play a loud, abrasive sound score
  • o (Early contact was rarely done to any music and if so it was of the gentle ambient variety. We used a tape given us by a noise composer, Mark Allen Larson, which he made with samples from Kung Fu movies.)
  • • We will have non-performative conversations
  • o (We talked about anything we wanted, sometimes referring to the dance we were performing and at other times just everyday chit-chat, but neither were projected to the audience.) Since you are alternating, how come this one is not C.I. principle but your own? 
  • • We will fuck with flow
  • o (In ten years, a classicism had attached itself to C.I. that dictated that movements “should” always be soft, flowing and sequential.)
  • • We will stay out of physical contact as much as possible
  • o (As the name of the form implies, this was an important rule to break.)