Ishmael Houston-Jones: PLATFORM 2012: Parallels

Studio Museum

Ishmael Houston-Jones

The following is an excerpt from Ishmael Houston-Jones’s curatorial statement, which appears in the catalogue for PLATFORM 2012: Parallels. Join us on February 2 for our public program The Artist's Voice: Ishmael Houston-Jones in Conversation with Wangechi Mutu and Thomas J. Lax, where you can purchase a copy of the catalogue. More info about Parallels programming, here.


PLATFORM 2012: Parallels begins for me with a question—with a series of questions.  In her groundbreaking 2003 book on the eponymous subject, The Black Dancing Body, Brenda Dixon Gottschild interviewed a wide range of people in the field including Bebe Miller, Bill T. Jones, Gus Solomons, Jr., Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Meredith Monk, Ralph Lemon, Ronald K. Brown, and Wendy Perron.  Dixon Gottschild asked them to use “memory, fantasy, dreams, mythology…” to answer the question: “what images come to the mind’s eye when the term ‘Black dance’ is said?”   This has been my conundrum when curating this platform. How would I have answered her question?  For me does “Black Dance” even exist? And assuming it does, what defines it?  Is the term “mainstream Black Dance” an oxymoron?  What would it mean to push beyond its mainstream if it does exist?

What I think I meant when I approached Cynthia Hedstrom [to propose the original Parallels program in 1982], was that as a Black dance maker, I didn’t feel the same spiritual connection with Alvin Ailey that I did with many graffiti artists, or punk musicians, or people dancing at the Palladium and the Pyramid Clubs or b-boys and girls break dancing on cardboard in the streets, or those bizarre New Wave Drag performers or even people doing contact improvisation.  Of course seeing Judith Jamison performing Ailey’s Cry was one of the events that made me want to dance in the first place and I could come to my feet and clap along with the finale of his Revelations.  But aesthetically what I wanted to make and perform was as far away from those classics as were Giselle or Les Sylphide.  So I brought together two weekends of shared programming to declare, as I did in my program notes, “I chose the name Parallels for the series because while all the choreographers participating are Black and in some ways relate to the rich tradition of Afro‐American dance, each has chosen a form outside of that tradition and even outside the tradition of mainstream modern dance.''

Its been been thirty years since Blondell Cummings, Fred Holland, Rrata Christine Jones, Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, the late Harry Sheppard, Gus Solomons Jr. and I performed on the first Parallels series at Danspace Project.  It’s been twenty-five since Jawole Willa Jo Zollar joined us on the Parallels in Black tour to Paris, Geneva and London.  Now Bebe, Gus, Jawole along with David Rousseve, Cynthia Oliver, myself and others are on the faculties of major university dance departments.  In the first Parallels series I was making the case that to be a contemporary Black dance maker, one did not have to be a direct descendant of Ailey.  We were coming from Cunningham, Nina Weiner, Monk, Contact Improvisation as well as African and American Black Dance traditions.  Now many of those traditions are part of the Modern Dance canon; dance students have been exposed to those forms and to us as teachers.

For PLATFORM 2012: Parallels, I want to keep looking forward, while remaining cognizant of our shared pasts, (plural).  Of course, it goes without saying, that all platforms, no matter how comprehensive a curator tries to be, will always exclude more than it includes.  Some of those choices were determined by factors as banal as time and money—never enough of either in the arts, particularly with dance.  Having lived and worked in Lower Manhattan for most of the last 30 years, I admit to a New York bias in what I’ve seen and thus chosen.  And again (lack of) funds for travel determined some choices.  But I forced myself to make some challenging decisions that reflect back on what my dance interests are and what I see as work that is advancing the form onward.