Opening the Door to Memory
Ishmael Houston-Jones’s and Will Rawls’s
October – November 2016
“In the ’70s, dancing and sex were not at all dangerous, and there was a lot of both going around,” the performer, choreographer, dance curator, and educator Ishmael Houston-Jones told me in a coffee shop this October. “There was a sort of exuberance, especially coming after Stonewall and ’69. There was this feeling in the gay world that life was this celebration. And suddenly 1981 happens, and it’s like a brick wall.”
Houston-Jones and his co-curator, Will Rawls, have been preparing their expansive and ambitious ongoing Danspace Project series, Platform 2016: Lost & Found, which examines the impact of the AIDS crisis on the arts community of the 1980s as well as its enduring manifestations in the current artistic climate. The series was born from Houston-Jones’s discovery of writings by the late choreographer John Bernd, a friend and collaborator who died of AIDS-related causes in 1988. “A lot of it is really passionate writing; as the ’80s went on, he was realizing he was dying, which is a very particular place to be when you’re working and you’re journaling.”
Houston-Jones had for some time been thinking about reviving from documentation a dance work of Bernd’s in which he had performed. To recreate a thirty-year-old work as personal as Bernd’s, after the choreographer’s death, was a fascinating and disturbing proposition, which further compelled him to try. How could it be done? What would it mean to do it now? For the Platform that emerged from these considerations, he enlisted the help of choreographer Will Rawls, with whom he had worked during a previous Danspace Platform, the 2012 Parallels. The series grew to consist of twenty-eight events, including conversations, zines, a catalogue, screenings, a vigil, and performances. Lost & Found combines the efforts of eighty artists as well as scholars, writers, activists, and archivists. Certain events honor the contributions and experiences of living dancemakers whose work addresses the AIDS crisis, such as Bill T. Jones and Neil Greenberg; others commemorate those lost to AIDS, such as Bernd and Willi Ninja.
The resurfacing of documentation related to artists who died of AIDS has lent unexpected dimension and emotion to the project. “When I’m watching the John Bernd tapes, sometimes I can hear myself laughing in the ’80s,” Houston-Jones said. “And I think, Wow, that was me laughing thirty years ago, which is spooky, actually.” Dance being an ephemeral art form, memory in the community inevitably seems to bind to the objects with which it makes contact. It leaves ghostly room to imagine the dancing bodies that inhabited costume and space, held the props, wrote the thoughts, devised the work—the way they celebrated, and the way they suffered:
In learning about how this crisis impacted Ish’s generation, we’ve had a lot of discussions about what’s left over from artists who passed away, and a lot of it is ephemera: printed material, performance announcements, testimonials, the zine that Ish found…So there’s a history and a legacy of writing that holds these people’s memories in place, however fragmentary.
Rawls and Houston-Jones have identified a need to collect these testimonies, provide spaces for others to create and let go of memories in their Memory Palace vigil, and produce physical memorabilia of their own. Houston-Jones has succeeded in reworking John Bernd’s choreography from film with the help of Miguel Gutierrez and a cast of dancers. In addition to the catalogue, the curators have commissioned zines by two collectives who will be in residence at the nearby Arts on Site. “In grasping for my own metaphors for what the narrative of the Platform is, I came up with the zine, because it is a mash-up of different kinds of voices and aesthetics, and often is coming from a place that is under-recognized or under-historicized,” Rawls said. It’s an apt description: the zine brings to mind a generational preoccupation, something underground, assembled both out of protest and necessity for creative expression.
Lost & Found has motivated innovations in archival work of the era, with the help of students and scholars at CUNY’s Graduate Center. As Rawls told me, working with these scholars has helped him realize how archiving itself can be a form of activism: “It’s become about rethinking the history of the AIDS crisis, and how scholars are writing about and approaching performance from that period and now, and the links between them.”
But while Lost & Found celebrates the sacredness of the collected object and historical spaces such as St. Mark’s Church, what so radicalizes Rawls’s and Houston-Jones’s approach to this series is their dedication to the idea that memory is non-hierarchical and “weaves outwards”: the curators are equally interested in reviving memories of the past as examining how they directly or indirectly affect the work created today. “Whether you’re healing the feeling of having lost someone, a deeply important person to you, or whether you’re healing a gap that you feel from the legacy or inheritance of this conversation,” Rawls said, “there’s many ways in which the question of being alienated from this story, for whatever reason, might be one of the things I hope gets easier for us to meet in and through or around.” Lack of knowledge is just as crucial to building a history, the curators maintain, and understanding how the AIDS crisis has impacted the work of contemporary choreographers is a goal of this project.
One of the ways in which I understand how AIDS manifested beyond being a social crisis and a political crisis is being a really violent and grim crisis of the body... [In terms of] that trauma, dance is a body based form, and so it gets transmitted. It gets absorbed into your body and transmitted in dance classes. Questions of rage, and questions of suppression, and questions of voicelessness or finding your voice, or moving into a space of visibility […] these are very much a part of the work of some of the artists I’ve selected.
Inheritance, and by extension, age and generation, also figure heavily into Lost & Found. Rawls and Houston-Jones have a nearly thirty year age difference between them; their work is in conversation with different generations of artists, and in some ways the two represent the before and after of the crisis. John Bernd, after all, was only thirty-five when he died, “which is not young, but is young in his work, so his work is not spectacularly great—it has a lot of promise and there are a lot of really wonderful things about it,” Houston-Jones said. In deconstructing and redeveloping his work, he is, in a sense, aging Bernd’s work for him: “It’s become my fantasy of what John’s work might have become.”
Lost & Found began with a weekend commemorating that first generation through evenings dedicated to Bill T. Jones, Neil Greenberg, and the late Willi Ninja; this was intended to place the platform as a whole into a historical context, the base of the “rhizome” from which the rest of the series will spread. While An Evening with Archie Burnett—the event celebrating the life of the legendary Willi Ninja, who brought fame and unparalleled technical and creative prowess to the dance form voguing—would seem an unlikely event to tail those of two postmodernists, Rawls and Houston-Jones see overlap in the idea of dance experimentalism: “Voguing culture was an experimental art form. It’s not historicized that way, but it was definitely a break from tradition, even from traditional ‘black’ dance. It wasn’t located in the East Village—the piers or Harlem were the epicenters of it—but I thought it was really important that that community was a part of the Platform.”
I attended An Evening with Archie Burnett at St. Mark’s Church, interested to see how it would shape the series to come and fit into the curators’ concerns with how past trauma figures into contemporary artistic expression. The event was packed with attendees from all age groups and proximities to both the voguing scene and the downtown dance scene. Projected clips of Willi Ninja dancing from Sally Sommer’s celebrated film Check Your Body At the Door (2011) opened the program. In these films we see Willi Ninja as a powerhouse of physical contradictions: his limbs form crisp, rhythmic angles and slide like machinery along grooves, and yet his frame is long, slinky and feminine—his restraint one of his strongest weapons. Willi could shake and roll his shoulders with cartoonish speed, and he stares down the camera with a serene face but intense gaze.
The clips were followed by dances performed by Willi Ninja’s protégés and MC’d by his best friend, the house dance teacher and choreographer Archie Burnett, who was dressed in a red and white Aikido costume. The first work, East is Red, is a theatrical homage to the House of Ninja in the style of a kung fu film. With the sanctuary swathed in red light and “Oriental” style house music playing, the spectacle is offensive, delightfully campy, and unabashedly sweet. Eighteen Ninjas, dressed as samurais, monks, kings, geishas, and princesses, demonstrate locking hands and sequential geometries in the house’s iconic style of hieroglyphic hand motions. Though they did not rival the charisma and technique of Willi himself, what was more evidently missing were the cheers and calls of a real vogue ball; this was St. Mark’s Church, after all, and an occasional earnest whoop would have to do. The slim and transfixing Javier Ninja best succeeded in channeling Willi: in a tiny kimono, his back arched and one foot beveled, he forms ever-changing frames around his face with arms contorted and locked behind his head; later, to the gasps of the audience, he lifts his leg up to his face and falls forward into a split on the floor without breaking gaze with an imaginary opponent.
Immersion of Vogue, choreographed by Jason Rodriguez (Slim Ninja), features five dancers from multiple houses; prefacing the work, Slim Ninja said, “We don’t see each house as a separate being but try to work in unison.” In clean symmetries, the dancers duck walk, their hands a flurry of gestures, and collapse into synchronized death drops. Slim Ninja catwalks towards us in deep, slouched steps, dazzling with his demure downcast smirk. Bowing together to ecstatic cheers, a large and varied family, Burnett and the House of Ninja dedicate the work to “the one man that brought fashion and real life together in one room.”
Dancer and choreographer Darrell Jones then led a Q&A with Burnett. Deep-voiced and jovial, Burnett exudes both a dedication to and a power over the club; he is full of one-liners like, “It’s the music that turns me on,” and, “Don’t write a check that your ass can’t cash.” Certain questions veered off course, and Jones made several attempts to tether the conversation to the Platform’s themes—what sort of effect did AIDS have on the types of dancing being showcased in the club?—before agreeably allowing the event to change form, to a space for celebration and recollection of the memories of the club and vogue scenes. Burnett did make clear the commitment it takes to succeed, the patience and longevity needed to become a named and established dancer, the etiquette of the club. He rattled the endless names of venues, DJs, songs, and dancers that map “club head” memories of an era, authenticated by audience cheers of approval: Electric Circus, Styx, Crisco, Gotham, Roseland, Buttermilk Bottom, Kilimanjaro, the Tunnels, Kenny Carpenter, David Morales, Louie Vega, and more. “I miss that now for this generation,” Burnett said, and the sense of loss was palpable. The club scene has morphed with the professionalization of the form and a very different cityscape from its origins in the ballrooms and discos of the 1960s-’80s.
Burnett evidently pays tribute to Willi Ninja and the world they helped build through dedication to its continuity. Willi believed in friendship and family first: if there was a diamond in the ruff, Willi would nurture it. Burnett mentors new students with a firm hand: “We teach the kids, start from reality, and then we tweak it,” he told us. This generation of Ninjas, of which there are 156 worldwide, also inherit Willi’s signature moves.
As I was interested in the answers to the questions posed to Burnett by Jones and the audience, and a way of connecting the event with the series at large, the Q&A was admittedly frustrating. The enthusiasm of those around me for Burnett’s memories, however, was a reminder that memorialization takes many forms, something that Rawls and Houston-Jones had anticipated. “We’ve opened the door, and wherever I stand in relationship to what I know or don’t know, part of it is just holding the door open and not needing to take care of everything that is said,” Rawls had told me, recalling the Q&A at the launch party the previous week. “We’re constantly trying to say that what we’re presenting is an outline of a much larger story, but because the AIDS epidemic and the disease hits on the deeply personal, cellular, and social and cultural levels, I think a lot of different kinds of responses are going to come forward.”
Rawls and Houston-Jones asserted that the worlds of the club scene and of experimental dance are intertwined: voguing is an act of experimentation, its greats regularly work and collaborate with other techniques, and its community was equally devastated by AIDS. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the different forms mourning necessarily takes in differing dance communities. The night before, the postmodern choreographer Neil Greenberg had shown a version of a work that names the trauma itself—Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994). In its somber address of death, choreographed for a space similar to St. Marks and adhering to the same rules of spectatorship, Greenberg’s piece is more readily curated into this series. An homage through voguing would be found at its best and most powerful in a lively ballroom or underground club scene, a contrast that is in itself interesting, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Furthermore, the ways in which AIDS impacted vogue balls and dance clubs remain hard to define. “When the disease hit, the contact changed,” Burnett said of the forms of interaction that took place in the clubs. But did the behavior change? He wasn’t sure.
Inheritance, however, is a way that both communities do come to memorialize: both conceptualize dance as generation-based, with legacy passed down through techniques or concepts of the body. As Rawls told me, “One way to archive is to make a list or have a library of documents that are tangible, [but] I think of Javier Ninja, who carries the Ninja name: there’s a way in which that can be a form of archiving. There are people who are still alive and working in this tradition and expanding it, and so the archive is never a stable thing. It’s always transitioning.” Even thirty years later, it is perhaps too early to say how any two forms of remembrance compare, and in the end, the point of Lost & Found is to recover and amass, and save the scrutiny for another day.