Outside the Frame: Amanda Hamp on “Downtown” Dance Artists in the 1980s

By Amanda Hamp, Associate Professor of Dance, University of New Mexico
September 19, 2023
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Two people and a dog lay on a hardwood dance floor
Performance still Boy Meets Girl (1981) by Stephanie Skura, performed with Ishmael Houston-Jones, photo by Ruth Hardinger.

Amanda Hamp is an Associate Professor of Dance at the University of New Mexico, where she teaches contemporary dance technique, choreography, pedagogy, and writing. She spent a two-week short-term fellowship researching dance performances and papers of selected “downtown” dance artists working in the 1980s. The research was part of her book-in-progress, Moving Beneath and Beyond the Visual: Socio-Somatic Dance in the Twenty-First Century.

In her 1983 postmodern dance piece, It’s Either Now or Later, choreographer Stephanie Skura holds a large wood frame in front of Ishmael Houston-Jones as he dances in typical downtown fashion: his gaze is soft, he executes an effortless blend of virtuosic and pedestrian movement vocabulary, and his affect is casual yet focused. As he swoops one arm to shoulder height, his hand reaches beyond the edges of the frame. Sometimes, Skura keeps the frame relatively still, and Houston-Jones moves into and out of the space it circumscribes. Other times, she moves it up and down or glides it across the upstage area that Houston-Jones traverses, trying to catch all the action. 

Skura, who regularly choreographed text in her dances, comments on this. During this part of the hour-long piece, she gives a running analysis of the impacts of choreographing and dancing for the camera, which puts the three-dimensional art form of dance into a two-dimensional space. Concerned about the pitfalls, she complains, “he does all of his best stuff when he's not even in the frame!” The section ends when Skura walks offstage, carrying the frame with her, and the audience can see Houston-Jones continue to perform terrific material—jumping, flinging his long arms, agilely traveling across the stage, and swiveling on confident legs. This section in Now or Later captures an ongoing interest of mine: What occurs outside the frame of performance in experimental dance, and how does it influence the aesthetics?

Eight photos of people performing in a gallery
Contact sheet photos from performance of Boy Meets Girl (1981) by Stephanie Skura, performed with Ishmael Houston-Jones.

Skura and Houston-Jones each made significant contributions to the development of postmodern dance in the U.S. in the late 20th century, and they both remain influential in the field today through choreographing, curating, and teaching their improvisation- and somatics-based dance practices. Both artists won Bessie Awards the first time they were presented in 1984—Skura for Now or Later and Artbusiness (1984) and Houston-Jones for Cowboys, Dreams, and Ladders (1983), which he created and performed with Fred Holland. Each of their distinct bodies of work demonstrates how postmodern dance resisted the conventions of its modern dance predecessors by eschewing expressionism and the primacy of technical virtuosity. Instead, they generated quotidian and experience-based approaches to movement, choreography, and performance. 

In both Now or Later and Artbusiness, Skura choreographs non-linear theatrical dance to remark on trends and problems in the field and how they impact artists’ lives. In a press kit for Now or Later, provided to the Eye on Dance television program, Skura speaks to how late-20th-century downtown choreographers were experimenting with dance to convey lived experience: “By structuring improvisation specifically, I can achieve a quality both freewheeling and meticulous. By multilayering effects, I can create the simultaneity of thought, sensation, memory, and visual perception that we all experience as we live.” Artbusiness serves as another example. In a press kit for this piece, Skura explained, “This is my political piece. Politics as personal experience. After 9 years of making performances and experiencing what goes on behind, beside and around the scenes to make the work and the careers happen, I had to, at this point in my career, comment on it all.” 

Houston-Jones also centered politics in his postmodern work. In Cowboys, he and Fred Holland do contact improvisation while wearing boots and spurs, project a film of a Black cowboy who had a riding program for youth in the Bronx, and perform text in muffled voices characteristic of cowboys in 20th-century cinema. As research for the piece, they watched westerns, rode horses with the Bronx-based cowboy, studied U.S. history and migration of freed Black slaves from the south to the west, and watched (and spoofed in Cowboys) ballet and modern dance works that celebrated frontier culture, such as Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo (1942) and a piece by Martha Graham, most likely Appalachian Spring (1958). 

Discussing Cowboys in a 2019 interview with Alex Fialho, Houston-Jones drew a parallel between the erasure of Black cowboys and of Black postmodern dance artists from U.S. history. He—and other artists, including Blondell Cummings, Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and Gus Solomons, Jr.—resisted the pressure for Black dance artists to fit the athletic, “showy,” and “technically proficient” mold that was represented in concert dance work. Instead, he said, “I want to throw mothballs on the floor and carry my mother around or be Black cowboys with Fred Holland. […] That it comes from a more personal place, deeply personal. It’s not prescribed from an outside image of what a black dancer is or can be or should be.” Houston-Jones also pushed back on white aesthetics in postmodern dance, remarking that his and Holland’s contact improvisation practice and performance work embodied a “Black punk sensibility.” 

Skura recalls that while making these performance works in the early 1980s, she and Houston-Jones had a weekly studio rental on Friday evenings, where they came with ideas and improvised together, generating raw material that they would then refine in their own work. Additionally, they were both involved with Open Movement, a weekly session at PS 122 where artists experimented with improvisation as well as the somatic practices Authentic Movement and Skinner Releasing Technique. 

At Open Movement, dance artists exercised their interest in how personal and sociopolitical experiences belong in and intertwine with dance. Co-formed with other artists such as Yvonne Meier (who performed in Now or Later and Cowboys), John Bernd, Tim Miller, and Jennifer Monson, as well as musicians and visual artists, the Open Movement group practiced and produced performances that included marginalized experiences and identities. They involved feelings and politics rather than gloss over them. In doing so, they generated aesthetics that departed from the ease and flow that marked mainstream postmodern dance. Discussing an adjacent group that met on Sundays—Open Movement, The Closed Class—Houston-Jones reflected that improvisation “provided movement and a vehicle for movement but also of expression. It was possible to express yourself without using the set choreographic things. And I began thinking that improv could be shaped and structured in a way in which not only messages but ideas or feelings could be—could come across, could be given or transmitted."

Open Movement demonstrated how late-20th-century downtown dance artists centered their personal experiences of navigating the sociopolitical world—what occurred outside the frame of the dance studio or performance setting—into their practices and performance work. One of their approaches was to engage somatics, which are movement modalities that focus on an individual’s internal experience, including sensations, feelings, and visualizations. While somatics were adopted by dance artists at the time primarily for their values and aesthetics of ease, the Open Movement group experimented with somatics and dance to, recalling Houston-Jones, transmit ideas and feelings, and, echoing Skura, to “create the simultaneity of thought, sensation, memory, and visual perception that we all experience as we live.” For the artists in Open Movement, this meant embracing a wide range of material, including the tumultuous and messy. The practices and aesthetics generated by artists in the Open Movement group served as a precedent and roots for contemporary experimental dance artists who wield somatics in their practices and choreography to grapple with lived experience and sociopolitical difficulty. I call this kind of work “socio-somatic dance.”

A socio-somatic ethos permeated a recent reprisal of Houston-Jones and Miguel Gutierrez’s Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd (2016), presented by Danspace Project, and a Bessie Award recipient. As suggested by the title, the collaborators based the piece on several works by artist John Bernd, including his solo, Surviving Love and Death (1982), which preceded and informed his creation of Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life Part I (1982), Part II (1983), and Part III (1985). Bernd turned to his experiences of queerness and living with HIV/AIDS as material for creating his performance works, and, with Variations, Gutierrez and Houston-Jones honored Bernd’s work and his life. I was fortunate that the run of shows took place during my fellowship in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division in May, 2023. 

What emerged on opening night of Variations reflected the care that circulated in the 1980s downtown dance scene. Early in the performance, when one of the dancers got injured, Gutierrez paused the show, said to the audience, “It’s useless to pretend something didn’t happen,” and reassigned the injured dancer’s roles. While the performance continued, Gutierrez accompanied that dancer, out of the frame of the dance theater, to the hospital. In the closing section of the piece, where the dancers perform various rituals of care, Houston-Jones steps in for the injured dancer and sponge-bathes Kris Lee’s back, a revival of the final scene of Bernd’s Two on the Loose (1988), a duet with Jennifer Monson that ends with Bernd bathing Monson’s back. Houston-Jones was one of Bernd’s caregivers as he lived with HIV/AIDS and suffered from the illnesses it caused. I can imagine Ishmael bathing John, and I can feel how the meaningfulness of these intimate social relationships are transmitted through the works they created—then and now.

Because It’s Either Now or Later happens onstage rather than onscreen, the “best stuff” that Houston-Jones does is visible to the audience beyond the confines of the frame held by Skura. This moment in the piece encapsulates the fact that much of what happened in the 1980s downtown dance scene—perhaps the most meaningful and poignant material—occurred beyond what was observable within the frame of performance. While the complexity, challenges, and care found in the relationships that occurred in the downtown dance community may not have been plainly visible onstage, they were deeply influential on the work the artists made and aesthetics they created, a legacy that continues today. 

Read more about dancer, choreographer, writer, and educator Amanda Hamp on her website.