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Ishmael Houston-Jones

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ISHMAEL HOUSTON-JONES

at Gallery 2

October 27 and 28

When dancers talk during their dances, they don't talk like anyone else. For them, talking doesn't have the dominant place it does in everyday conversation. Talking is just another movement, to be performed and balanced with the others.

A seminal talking dance was Douglas Dunn's Nevada, which premiered in New York in 1973. In the after- show "discussion period," when a choreographer customarily comments on his work, Dunn fitfully stood up and sat down in a chair while his taped voice read a piece that began: "Talking is talking. Dancing is dancing." The tape recited all possible variations on these statements, including: "Not talking is not not dancing. Not dancing is not not talking." And: "Dancing is talking. Talking is dancing." When the tape ended, Dunn crawled onto the dance floor and started howling.

Dancers have derived many meanings from Dunn's poem. Some dancers refuse to talk about their work, because "dancing is dancing, and talking is talking"; dancing and talking should remain separate. Other dancers began to include talking in their dances. Ishmael Houston-Jones is one of the second group: all of the solo dances and group improvisations in his concert at the School of the Art Institute's Gallery 2 incorporated substantial amounts of talking.

Houston-Jones taught a week-long workshop for Chicago artists and dancers, and the workshop students (Dina Ashmann, Joanne Bauer, Anna Braun, Lydia Charaf, Diana Froley, Claudine LoMonaco, Kathleen Maltese, Dennis Olsen, Rebecca Rossen, D. Travers Scott, Art Stone, and Jodi Tucci) performed a group improvisation, Just Not Jim, in which the performers tried, individually and in groups, to capture and keep the audience's interest. The performers worked well together, each performer taking the spotlight and releasing it without rancor. Sometimes movement was used, as when two performers embraced while two others alternately embraced and slapped each other in the face. Talking played an important role: one performer (Maltese) started to talk to an audience member, another (Rossen) gave capsule descriptions of audience members. Though they held my interest for the entire 30 minutes of the piece, I came to feel like an experimental animal, being tested to see what would generate interest. Of course artists have to learn what's interesting to others, but to focus on that alone seems greedy, as if the performer were demanding something from the audience.

In his two solos, Houston-Jones always gave something of himself. In a video, Relatives, Houston-Jones gave us his family: he danced in front of his mother's house in Mississippi while his mother talked about how she and his father met.

Houston-Jones's dancing is loose-limbed, with swinging arms and legs creating momentum for quick turns. His dancing looks naive and low-key, without pyrotechnics; but its fluidity shows years of training. It seems a recent style, incubated in New York and seen in Chicago in Timothy Buckley's work. Because Houston-Jones is compact and muscular, on him the movement style looks sweet.

Houston-Jones's first solo, In the Dark, confronts the talking/dancing issue directly. Most of the dance takes place in complete darkness: we could hear but not see Houston-Jones as he tripped over objects onstage and blundered through the audience. Meanwhile he talked about how he created the dance for his roommate, an artist who could only see dance in visual terms. To confound his roommate, Houston-Jones created a dance that could not be seen. Houston-Jones also talked about how In the Dark has irritated dance critics, who could not see it, and how that gave him special pleasure. As he talked, Houston- Jones pulled back curtains from the performing area, and the ambient light from the street created a silhouette of him dancing, just visible in the semidarkness. The effect was stunning.

Houston-Jones may have talked pompously about freeing dance from the tyranny of the visual, but he also created visual effects. And in his talking, he laughed at his own pomposity. The layers of trickery in the dance, of doing one thing while pretending to do another, created a web of illusion and humor.

After In the Dark Houston-Jones read an amateurish short story "about a black man living on an island, where everyone is dropping dead." Though he said the story wasn't autobiographical, its implicit allusion to AIDS decimating the dance community in New York set the stage for his last solo.

At the start of Without Hope, Houston-Jones kisses the edge of a cinder block he cradles in his arms. He kisses it as a lover would, alternating tender kisses with hopeless ones. He starts to talk, telling stories about physical and emotional mutilation. In one, a biologist follows a sick female elephant to see where her grave will be. All of the male elephants in the herd copulate with the female elephant, to try to make her feel better. It's easy to imagine gay men who are dying from AIDS trying to comfort each other with sex; the bitter irony that sex caused their suffering makes their great pain into mutilating pain; not even the simple animal comfort of sex is available to them.

Then Houston-Jones begins to dance, embracing the cinder block. Several times he falls to the floor, cradling the cinder block, or dances with it at arm's length. The cinder block seems to be a damaged lover, someone who cannot respond. Or perhaps the cinder block is his own despair, as lovers and friends die around him. Houston-Jones's physical danger in dancing with a 20-pound cinder block is a metaphor for the emotional danger of wrestling with a cement heart. When the dance is over, Houston-Jones lets the cinder block fall to the floor as he staggers away, looking as if he's wrestled with the Angel of Death. I staggered out of Gallery 2 myself, incoherent as I tried to absorb the dance's bleak intensity.

In Without Hope, the talking is poetic; talking and dancing support each other in communicating deeply felt grief. In the Dark sets talking, dancing, and seeing wittily against each other. Talking is used in some wonderful ways, but strangely, none of these works contained much dancing--talking seems to be crowding dancing out of Houston-Jones's work.

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