This week, curatorial advisor Anna Drozdowski interviews Local Dance History Project artist Ishmael Houston-Jones, offering an inside peek into the creative development of the artist’s work.

Anna Drozdowski
: Tell me about DEAD, in two sentences.
Ishmael Houston-Jones: 
When my late mother saw DEAD for the first time her only comment was, “Bess Truman isn’t dead.” My reply was, “But she will be one day.”

What was happening in 1980 (or thereabouts) that was important to your artistic growth? Ishmael: 
By 1980 I had left Philadelphia. I moved to New York on Thanksgiving Day 1979. During the 1970s when I lived here, besides the Ballet, the main players on the dance scene were Group Motion, Zero Moving Co., Philadanco, Juba, Arthur Hall’s Afro American Dance Ensemble, South Street Dance Company, Joan Kerr Dance Company, Sybil Dance Company and Ann Vachon/Dance Conduit. Toward the end of the decade there was a movement of independent choreographers many gathered around Terry Fox’s studio in Old City. I taught and rehearsed there, as did Terry, of course. Jano Cohen, Wendy Hammerstrom, Anne Marie Mulgrew and others were part of a core of artists centered on the Church Street Loft. Terry lived there with composer Jeff Cain so there were always many musicians on the scene as well. At this time Old City was transitioning from being a rather desolate district of light manufacturing and warehouses to an artists’ neighborhood. It was still possible to find really cheap live/work spaces so there were a lot of visual artists living and making work in the area.

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Michael Biello today; image by Jacques-Jean Tiziou

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Michael Biello today; image by Jacques-Jean Tiziou / www.jjtiziou.net

Michael Biello, with whom I’d danced in Group Motion and a ceramicist by training set up his workshop/gallery on North Third Street. Bricolage Theater came into existence and seemed to be comprised of as many visual artists as actors. Etage and The Wilma Project and a little later The Painted Bride had homes in Old City at the time. The organization Old City Arts grew and acted as an umbrella that united this band of like-minded but disparate individuals into a real artists community. Toward the end of the 70s large scale outdoor projects like “Wear White at Night” took place in the streets, alleys and highway construction sites in the neighborhood. These involved dancers, choreographers, sculptors, painters, directors, musicians and others from the newly born Old City Arts Community. It was an exciting time and it seemed to be possible to be an independent dance artist, not affiliated with one of the companies and present one’s work in much the same way an individual painter would have a gallery show. There were always other dancers around to pick up for particular projects and other choreographers for whom to dance. It just seemed that outside of the Old City bubble that was less possible. The overall Philadelphia dance scene was still organized around the Companies. In order to get shown in one of the few venues one had to be a part of that system. It was a surprise and an anomaly when the shows of independent choreographers were presented at Annenberg. I left for New York right after this because the opportunities for an independent choreographer seemed much greater there.

Michael Biello and Ishmael Houston-Jones, circa 1980

We spoke briefly about the idea of experimental dance – do you have a thought about how this title applies to your work then/now?
Back then, 1972 – 1980, improvisation seemed to be a radical break from what was happening in the Philadelphia dance scene. Terry Fox had a steadfast commitment to it and that rubbed off onto me. Terry, Jeff Cain and I had a loose ensemble called “A Way of Improvising,” which meant we (with others) would get together a couple of times a week and jam intensely and then convince the Bride to give us a show in which very little was ever planned in advance. We knew what time we’d begin; we knew the show would (probably) be longer than five minutes but shorter than two hours. But other than that, very little was premeditated. This seemed to be the most natural way of approaching music and dance to us at the time. But outside of our circle, our shows were met with a large degree of skepticism and not with a lot of respect.

By the mid-1970s Terry, Jeff and I each decided that we wanted to make pieces that were more than the pure music/dance open improvs. Jeff made some remarkable absurdist theater pieces, Terry began exploring more narrative in her work as well as making site specific works for theater and film and I began working in Contact Improvisation as well as forming Two Men Dancing with Michael Biello and Dan Martin which used dance, music and narrative to examine gay male themes. All of these explorations still seemed to be outside the mainstream of what was happening within the greater Philly dance scene.
Describe Terry Fox to someone who hasn’t met her.
Back in the 70s when Terry had her studio on Church Street in Old City, there was a record store at the end of block on Third Street that had a poster of Patti Smith in the window. It was Patti circa “Horses” wearing jeans, a white shirt and sneakers in 4 or 5 different poses. When I first started coming to the studio to take Terry’s class and to jam, I was positive that that poster was of Terry not Patti. There was something punk rock about Terry. But not the hard edges, dyed hair, tattooed and pierced punk rock. She was gentler, more refined but just as radical in her dance making as Patti was in her music.

At the same time, Terry is one of the most self-effacing people I know. It is her least attractive quality. She has spent her entire adult life making remarkable work as an artist, mentoring a generation of artists as a teacher and creating extraordinary opportunities for others as an administrator. But she never wants to take credit for any of it. Very Protestant.

Also we have the same birthday, June 8, so I feel a special kinship with her and we shared some very special parties together.

You work with students and emerging dance makers a lot. What have you learned from them and your new collaborators on this project?
Working with Gregory Holt, John Luna, Scott McPheeters and William Robinson was curious but easy. First, they are really talented and generous individuals who gave a lot to this project. They all have their own dance lives here and that is a good thing. What is curious is that “What We’re Made Of” was made in a very particular time with a very particular demographic. Gay men in their 20s, post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS. And while these four men are in their 20s (three of the four identify as Gay/Queer), the era in which they’ve grown up is a whole generation away from that in which we who made the piece came of age.

The other difference is that they are well-trained dancers. This has had its advantages and disadvantages in recreating the piece. In some ways they perform the dance sequences “better” than Michael, Tonio Guerra, Jeff McMahon and I did in the original. But the piece was always about more than the dancing and it has been a happy challenge for us to try to teach the attitudes and histories from which the material originated.

Name your preferred mode of transportation.
In New York, bicycle (March thru November). David Brick gave me a girls’ pink Schwinn named Debbie. For long distances, trains. Or road trips in cars if someone else is driving (I’ve never had a license). Have rediscovered the bus now that they have WiFi. Hate planes and will do almost anything not to fly.

What is the question that you’re never asked, but excited to answer?
“How can one tell when a sow is in heat and what does one do when one finds out that she is?” Or: “Were you nervous teaching dance to soldiers who had their rifles propped against the studio wall.

What has remained the same in the past 30 years of dance-making?
My work is still improv based, though that doesn’t seem to be so radical now. I teach improvisation at Sarah Lawrence College and am in charge of the Improvisation Curriculum at the American Dance Festival. Improv is now a part of most dance training, but is still usually given a less prominent place than “technique.” I still use spoken words in my work, which I began doing in the 70s in Philadelphia. I’ve made seven pieces with the novelist Dennis Cooper. I like making work that challenges both my audience and me.

Look out for more interviews with series artists. Have your own Q&A questions? Email info@philadanceprojects.org to submit.
Published on February 16, 2010 – 2:22pm

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