Dance Review: “Them” — Reveling in Sexual Desire

An elegy to youth and the transgressions of reckless behavior, Them celebrates sex as a wild and raw imperative.

Them, part of the East Village Series. Conceived, directed, and performed by Chris Cochrane (musician), Dennis Cooper (writer) and Ishmael Houston-Jones (choreographer) at the Performance Space New York, NYC, June 28 at 7 p.m.

Michael Watkiss, Hentyle Yapp, and Alvaro Gonzalez Dupuy in “Them” at the Performance Space New York. Photo: Rachel Papo.

By Mary Paula Hunter

Premiered in 1986 at PS 122, then a newly founded hotbed of avant guard performance, Them is an hour-long work of physical theatre that powerfully explores male sexuality. In this revival, improvising dancers roam the cavernous black space on the fourth floor of what is now called Performance Space NYC, a renovated modern performance hall. As the last piece in this re-vamped space’s inaugural season, Them reaffirms the venue’s long history of presenting challenging physical theater.

Throughout this dark and eerie work, live electric guitar, explosive movement, and spoken word co-exist in separate segments, sometimes ordering themselves into the neatness of a lunar eclipse, at other times pulling chaotically in opposite directions.

At the start, seven motionless dancers rimmed the stage. Ishmael Houston-Jones, an elder statesman (he is one of the original three creators), performed a solo that skirted the space, waving his arms and legs before abandoning the stage — he never appears again — to this encroaching company of feral, stalking animals. Also left in view: Houston-Jones’ veteran collaborators, who unlike the production’s younger dancers had been with him in the ’80s, when PS 122 was a derelict abandoned school building and the company examined gay sexuality  with an openness and vitality that had not yet been constrained and/or impeded by the AIDS crisis.

Chris Cochrane, on electric guitar, produced long lines of piercing sound In the upstage corner. His equipment served as a beacon in the blank, dimly lit space. Dennis Cooper, opposite Cochrane in the downstage corner, reminisced in a soft monotone of sexual liaisons during his adolescence and early adulthood.

Throughout the piece, fearless, often reckless, men grapple with one another in weighted matches of desire. Never to my knowledge has the rough hewn experience of physical sex been choreographed with such authenticity. Here was Contact Improvisation at its visceral best. Dancers dropped into each other’s arms, shimmied up bodies, knocked each other to the floor, generating a kinetic intensity that celebrated the groping awkwardness of erotic compulsion. For the dancers in Them, Contact Improvisation became an articulation of uncompromising desire. The form’s major trait — the transfer of weight from one partner to another — proved theatrical and expressive rather than stunt-like.

An elegy to youth and the transgressions of reckless behaviors, Them celebrates sex as a wild and raw imperative — as valuable today in our repressive climate as it was in the ’80s when this important venue committed itself to producing courageous theatre.

Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces.

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