Sunday, January 12, 2014

"I didn't mean it when I said...": Houston-Jones and Wexler at Abrons

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler
(photo by Ian Douglas)

Here's what they tell us:
Separated by a generation -- he’s in his 60s she in her 30s, and differing in gender and ethnicity – male, female; black, white, these two innovative dance artists have found common ground in their mutual belief that the pop love song is corrosive. That these songs damage any hope at finding true love with their sickening, cloying, and cheesy lyrics.
Dancers Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler have made a collage of songs--from Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together" to a pretty British folk ballad by Kate Rusby to the narcotized version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin" by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. These numbers form an offbeat soundtrack for the dancers' episodic duet, 13 Love Songs:dot dot dot. The often flimsy lyrics--like the inclusion of the artists' demographics in the above promotional statement--seem almost besides the point.

A world premiere at American Realness 201413 Love Songs:dot dot dot runs for one hour during which Houston-Jones and Wexler strip romantic love of its seductive disguises and get down to realness. Manic, desperate, childlike, gritty, aggressive, sticky, comic, addictive, ecstatic, visceral realness. Subjected to harsh light and throwing towering shadow. The animal body speaking in signs and howling its insides out.

In one segment, set to Pascal Rogé's recording of Satie's Gymnopédies, the dancers repeatedly attach to each other then melt, stretch and peel away, clearly remaining connected in a blend of sweat, smell and vibration. In another, Wexler reads from old diary entries about an unrequited crush--I'm guessing these are authentic ones she wrote in high school*--using a megaphone to liberate what was once folded away in privacy. "How pathetic, worthless and small I was," she says at one point. Maybe it's because we've all been there, done that, but the audience giggles at many of her words and even Wexler flashes a radiant grin as she says, "Why the hell are you still alive?"

As I see it here, the body is all. The body undermines and overwhelms words. The body is gutsy, often subversive and self-revealing. Both of these powerful dancers--"he's in his 60s she in her 30s"--give themselves over to everything.

And then they ask audience members to give themselves over, in love and worship, to the everything that is their own bodies. The concluding passage invites a fraction of the audience to come into the performing space to engage in a somatic meditation led by Wexler. Meanwhile, Houston-Jones constructs a shrine off to one side, complete with votive candles and several taped-up photo portraits. He sits in lotus pose before these faces, singing the refrain "You are everything and everything is you...." from The Stylistics hit song. Both approaches--Self vs. Other; be-in-the-present vs. live-in-memories--could be corny but, as finally presented here, don't feel corny; both of these created spaces appear genuine.

As I'm sure you're aware by now, Houston-Jones and Wexler and, by extension, Ben Pryor's American Realness festival, got an exceptionally harsh write-up in The New York Times. Obviously, I disagree with this critique of 13 Love Songs:dot dot dot and its artists as well as Michelle Boulé's WONDER (which I saw and reviewed here last May). I have not seen Adrienne Truscott's performance, but the short-sightedness and petulance of the entire review leads me to believe that I might well have missed something of value.

[*Since I posted this review, Wexler has told me that the diaries date back to 4th through 10th grade.]

For your entertainment, let me direct you to something Houston-Jones wrote and posted on Facebook yesterday morning. You will find it here.

Remaining performances of 13 Love Songs:dot dot dot are tonight at 7pm, Friday, January 17 at 5:30pm and Saturday, January 18 at 2:30pm. For schedule and ticketing information, click here.

For complete information about American Realness 2014 at Abrons Arts Center, click here.

Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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