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THEM – Chris Cochrane, Dennis Cooper, and Ishmael Houston-Jones (1986)

November 1, 2010

Arturo Vidich, wearing a white blindfold, stands with his back to the audience. A column of white light shines down diagonally across the floor and lands on his back. From the door way emitting this light, Ishmael Houston-Jones’ shadow enters and he follows. Coming close to Arturo he begins a soft and leading duet of simple touches, pushing his body through shapes. From behind, Jeremy Pheiffer enters and takes over where Ishmael has left to watch in the distance. Arturo tumbles in Jeremy’s arms, at one point dropping his much larger body completely over Jeremy’s knee, floating in his controlled embraced.

Ishmael returns once the two have parted and begins a solo dance. It has been almost 25 years since the first performance but his body still moves with wonderful grace and intention. He grabs his crotch, feels his skin and speaks of masturbation, of self-pleasure. Felix Cruz and Niall Noel begin their own dance of pleasure. Although intention is skewed and it is difficult to see when the movement is beyond that of momentary improvisation, the boys cascade on and over each other often rubbing groins and backsides together. They don’t acknowledge each other’s presence except as bodies to touch and push and fall onto. Their only purpose is to continue touching.

Credit: Hugh Burckhardt

Jeremy returns with a large wooden plank and a pocket full of coins. As he faces away, the light creating an obscured façade, he tosses each into the air and cracks them beyond the light. A man stands with a microphone lit offstage and reads a seemingly unending list of deaths and how they occurred. At first they are suicides, then accidental overdoses, diseases, old age and finally when a boy meets another man for sex, heavily suggesting a death by AIDS we are told that as he calls his friend for a ride from a phone booth, a blood vessel in his brain explodes. Upon hearing this, the lights flash on, a loud crash is heard and all of the boys careen onstage, chasing each other around the room at full speed and with violent athleticism.

They pause in a formation facing the upstage diagonal corner. The reader begins again to speak this time of himself. He talks of boys and sex and happiness as the formation moves slowly across the stage. These boys touch each other, sometimes suggestively sexual, sometimes suggestively romantically, but always with an air of detachment. Although they look at and approach each other there is a constant lack of interest or expectation of anything the other boys are doing.

Credit: Hugh Burckhardt

At one point, a line of light creates a strip along the edge of the stage. Niall and Enrico D. Wey stand at either end and begin walking slowly toward each other. They look at each other with mild interest and Niall has a glint of distant sadness in his eyes. As they walk they pause at each other than begin walking past as if deciding to move on, only to turn around and begin the walk again. This encounter becomes faster and faster until they are running full speed at and away from each other, Niall inadvertently kicking my feet and bag as I sit just off stage in his path. They finish with a struggle up against the wall, each trying to pin the other and press their bodies together.

Later Jeremy returns to chase Felix with his wooden plank, coming close to smacking and injuring him several times. He passes the plank to Joey Cannizzaro who lands on a mattress which Niall has brought on stage. He slams the wood on the springs again and again sending the loud smacks out into the air. Each strike as hard as the last, he finally falls over in exhaustion. The mattress is used again as Joey sits casually at one end while Niall pushes Jacob Slominski onto his back into the mattress. Niall helps Jacob stand back up and repeats the process for a seemingly eternal cycle. The final use of the mattress comes as the blindfolded Arturo enters again while Jeremy follows with a goat folded around his neck. Arturo sits on the mattress and the goat is handed to him as the smell of barn and the realization that the goat is dead fills the room.

Arturo takes the goat and begins to hold it close to him as he tumbles on the mattress, he flops the goat’s head around and pushes himself on it. It becomes clear that he is making love to the lifeless goat. It might seem that this love making, which lasts longer than most would find comfortable, was some sort of avant-garde tool to shock the audience. However, with the common theme of sex, death and a hinting of AIDS, it would be difficult to find a better way to convey this troubling concept without such a disturbing image. The goat is a very beautiful soft creature. It is cute and innocent and if it had been alive, this dance would have conjured images of a young simple love. But the goat is dead. It is lifeless and the man is too blind to see it. The young simple love is actually deadly play. One can not help but feel transported to the bedside of a young couple having sex, one with HIV and the other without, they don’t know it and it must be viewed with terrifying proximity and in silent disbelief. The duet ends as a sheet is pulled over the couple. They don’t move for the rest of the piece and everyone knows that the noxious barn smell is filling the lungs of the sheeted man.

Credit: Hugh Burckhardt

The final moments include the cast coming out into the light and staring off into distance. They look as though seeing themselves in the mirror and feeling their lymph nodes. They seem to be checking for swelling, the sign of an infection. Jeremy comes again, this time grabbing each boy in turn and wrestling them until they are still on the floor. Niall stands closest to me, feeling the node under his arm pit as the last boy standing. Jeremy walks slowly to his final victim as the darkness takes the entire scene away before it can be fully realized.

For someone who has just moved to New York City and as a newcomer to the dance community here, it is difficult to really grasp its history. The generation before my own found itself reeling from an unknown virus killing many people who contributed greatly to dance among all of the other many art forms. This was also the generation where homosexuality wasn’t remotely as acceptable as it is now. The gay community was neither defined nor understood and the mysterious virus infiltrated where it only caused greater confusion. Although HIV and AIDS are still very much prevalent it is much more understood and less deadly after medicines were created to fight it. The dance community and all of the arts will never know what has been lost not only in lives but in contributions to the art. A whole community was dwindled down and my generation will never truly know what that was like or have that knowledge in our conscience in the way that the creators of this piece do. Even the dancers who performed this work recently cannot do it justice. The original piece was performed by dancers who were there and who were speaking about their current experience. The new dancers can only perform and hope that what was said could still be heard. As I watched Niall at the end I wanted to snap my fingers and have him look at me just so I could know that he was here and he was himself. The performers were speaking about such intimate subjects but they were not speaking about themselves and in this sense the entire dance had a strange layer of distancing and I couldn’t reach a place where I felt truly affected.

Credit: Hugh Burckhardt

I am not fully sure if it was because of this new generation that this was how I felt. Even during the relaying of how the list of people died, it felt as though the depictions of death were more interesting or morbid than real. In the monologues, the speaker was both self-conscious but with a mythical touch. He spoke of the men he wanted to be or of the man he had become as an almost theatrical depiction. And although the goat dance was shocking and illuminating it still did not talk of itself in a real way. I have seen HIV depicted else where but mostly in the same theatrics. Whether it is Rent or Angels in America HIV has felt like a character and less like a disease. Perhaps these examples are theater and therefor should not be criticized for not feeling ‘real,’ but maybe these depictions are so common because it is much easier to discuss these topics from a distance and with layers of mysticism then to take off the outer layer and feel the true reality underneath. The creators of THEM did not set out to make a dance about HIV or homosexuality but the common thread of violence, death, seclusion, confusion, and love all combine within this piece and discussing one can’t help give insite into the others.

How did you react to the goat duet?

Were you disturbed by the violence through out the piece?

Have you seen other dances that depict or nod to HIV or AIDS?

Did you ever yearn for the sting of wet towels in the boy’s locker room?

October 28th, 2010
PS 122
New York, NY

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2010 1:08 am

    Great review, I just discovered this article a few days ago, good work.

  2. david watkiss permalink
    November 7, 2011 5:16 pm

    Dear ismael:

    Congratulations on the Bessie. THEM is a powerful work.

    David Watkiss (Mike’s dad)

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