Profile: Ishmael Houston-Jones (1951-)

Ishmael Houston-Jones is a choreographer, author, performer, teacher, curator, and arts advocate known for his improvisational dance and language work. His work has been performed in New York City, across the United States, in Europe, Canada, Australia and Latin America. Houston-Jones and Fred Holland shared a 1984 New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award for their work Cowboys, Dreams and Ladders performed at The Kitchen and he shared another Bessie Award in 2011 with writer Dennis Cooper and composer Chris Cochrane for the 2010 revival of their 1985 collaboration, THEM. THEMwas performed at Performance Space 122 (PS 122), the American Realness Festival, Springdance in Utrecht, Tanz im August in Berlin, REDCAT in Los Angeles, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and at TAP, Theatre and Auditorium of Poitiers, France.The 1985 premier performance of THEM at PS122 was part of New York’s first AIDS benefit.


Early years

He attended public primary and secondary school there and he attended his first dance class when he was 16 years old and a junior at William Penn High School. The Harrisburg Community Theater offered free dance classes to teenagers, and as he was involved in theater in school he went. This jazz-based show was his first experience performing dance. He enrolled as an English/Drama major at Gannon College, (now Gannon University) in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1969. There was no dance program and he only studied there for two years before he “accidentally” dropped out. He was traveling the summer after his sophomore year of college with the intention of returning to school in the fall, but he found himself in Israel, and decided to stay there for a year. He worked as a pig farmer for nine months at Kibbutz Lahav in the Negev Desert. Then he worked for three months on a banana plantation at Kibbutz Adamit in the Galilee on the border with Lebanon. Houston-Jones found 1971 to be a propitious time to be in Israel; it was the years between The Six-Day War and The Yom Kippur War and there was a calm atmosphere among the Israelis. He had always been fascinated by collective socialist living situations, so the idea of being on a kibbutz intrigued him. He had never done any kind of heavy farm work and while there he had to get up at 4 AM: feeding pigs, mating them and working in the slaughterhouse. When he moved north to Adamit he worked harvesting bananas, and at the end of most days, he and his comrades would go skinny-dipping in the Mediterranean. He would sometimes dance on the beach in the nude. Houston-Jones was able to take just one dance class that entire year; the African-American choreographer and dancer Gene Hill Sagan was teaching on a nearby kibbutz. It was around this time that he began to use Ishmael as his first name and hyphenated his parents’ surnames, though he never legally changed either.

In the early 2000s Houston-Jones made a deliberate decision to stop making dance pieces. He felt that he didn’t know what he wanted to say and that he didn’t want to just make work just for the sake of making work. He was committed to performing in other people’s pieces (Yvonne Meier, Lionel Popkin, and others), but he didn’t feel he had anything new to offer of his own. He did, during this time, make pieces with students at Alfred University, the New School, and at the American Dance Festival. He concentrated on teaching, writing, and serving on the boards of several not-for-profit dance organizations: (Headlong Dance Theater, Danspace Project, Movement Research, and Ashley Anderson Dances .)

Then in 2009, after not making professional dance pieces for eight years, Houston-Jones made The Myth and Trials of Calamity Jane and the Son of the Queen of the Amazons in collaboration with Ashley Anderson and This Ring of Fire in collaboration with Daniel Safer both at Dance New Amsterdam, (DNA). Also in 2009 he was asked to revive three of his works from the 1980s: What We’re Made Of (1980), DEAD (1981), and THEM (1986). All three revivals were completed and performed in 2010. The re-imagined THEM has since toured to four cities in Europe and to Los Angeles. His most recent piece, 13 Love Songs: dot dot dot, a collaboration with Emily Wexler premiered in January 2014 at the American Realness Festival in New York and toured to the American Dance Festival in North Carolina.

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