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Interview with Ishmael Houston-Jones

Interview with Ishmael Houston-Jones, 2019/ Conducted by Alex Fialho on December 13 and 14, 2019, in New York City (N.Y.); Producer: Dance Oral History Project .
Houston-Jones, Ishmael

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AudioSupervised use *MGZMT 3-3494Performing Arts Research Collections Dance


Additional Authors
Fialho, Alex
Online resource (3 streaming files [approximately 5 hr. and 32 min.]) : digital +
  • Streaming file 1, December 13, 2019 (approximately 1 hour and 48 minutes). Ishmael Houston-Jones speaks with Alex Fialho about his birth (in 1951) and childhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, including his family background; his first dance classes and first dance performances, when he was a teenager; more on his family; Harrisburg at the time including the segregated neighborhoods and schools; his experience, as one of the only Black children, at a school for "gifted" children; his goal of becoming a writer; his nickname Chuck, his legal name, Charles Houston Jones, and how he came to change his first name to Ishmael; the circumstances that led to his matriculation (in 1969), as an English major, at Gannon College, in Erie, Pennsylvania; his (high school) English teacher Rena Rogoff, who took him and other students to see theater in New York City; his time at Gannon College including his social, cultural and political activities as a student; leaving college after his sophomore year to travel in Europe and eventually making his way to Israel; exploring his interest in socialism by working at kibbutzim; his view of the positive and negative aspects of socialism based on this experience; more on why he chose Ishmael as his name; joining his friend Susan Lourie in Philadelphia, where he danced with the Group Motion Dance [Multi-] Media [Dance] Theater [now Group Motion]; his immersion in dance classes at this time, including at Temple University and at Group Motion; his feeling that he became a dancer almost by accident; (briefly) his street theater works when at Gannon College; Galaxies in collision, a work he performed in at Group Motion; (briefly) reminiscences of his political activities in college; (briefly) some of the artists at Group Motion including the directors Manfred Fischbeck and Brigitta Herrmann; his first feeling that he had become a dancer around 1972 when he started performing with Group Motion; more on how his political activism, his interest in socialism, and other influences including Bruno Bettelheim's book The children of the dream, had led him to work at kibbutzim; how this has affected him, including with respect to his political views; reasons New York City appealed to him, including Beat culture and writings by James Baldwin and others; during this time (mid-1970s) in Philadelphia, visiting New York weekly for movement therapy and contact improvisation classes; his first attempts at choreography including his collaboration with Michael Biello: Two men dancing: an improvisation on their maleness; his use of improvisation and language in his choreography; moving to New York City in 1979 and quickly connecting with PS 122 [Performance Space 122; now Performance Space New York]; the weekly Open Movement gatherings; reasons he is drawn to improvisation including his tendency to think in terms of images, colors, and sounds rather than specific movements; how he came to organize a two-weekend series for the Parallels project (Parallels at Danspace, at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, directed by Cynthia Hedstrom); his aim to create a showcase for work by Black choreographers that was outside of a certain type of older, Black choreographic tradition; how he characterizes this older tradition including with reference to Alvin Ailey; some of the choreographers (including Houston-Jones) who created work for the series: Gus Solomons jr., Bebe Miller, Blondell Cummings, Fred Holland, and Ralph Lemon; the broad scope and diverse nature of the works they presented; Houston-Jones' work (Part 2: Relatives), in which his mother also performed; more on his family including the annual trips to Mississippi; his parents' passive support of his career in dance; Bebe Miller's description of the Black choreographers in the Parallels series; his feeling, in 1982, that he and these other choreographers were outsiders with respect to mainstream Black dance in the United States; working with a group of Black choreographers formed by Linda Goode Bryant (who was the director of Just Above Midtown gallery) and Tony Whitfield; his desire to express himself as an individual, from a personal, interior space; his first trip, in 1983 as part of a group delegation, to Nicaragua; his second trip, on his own, in 1984, where he taught, at various locations including the Universidad Centroamericana, and local folkloric and military groups; his attempt through teaching, to link contact improvisation with his utopian, socialist-ideal-based vision of contact; his political activities while there; the responsibility he felt about his teaching in Nicaragua, in particular encouraging students to express their individuality through dance.
  • Streaming file 2, December 14, 2019 (approximately 1 hour and 53 minutes). Ishmael Houston-Jones speaks with Alex Fialho about Fred Holland including how they first met in Philadelphia (in 1975 or 1976); Holland's aptitude for contact improvisation; Houston-Jones' leaving Group Motion in order to explore improvisation with Terry Fox and others; performances by Trisha Brown and the Wooster Group as his inspiration for using language and other non-pure-dance elements (for example a live piglet) in his work; (briefly) his creative process; his and his colleagues' clothes as a reflection of their non-traditional approach to dance; the duet [untitled; sometimes called Oogala] he and Holland performed in Steve Paxton's contact improvisation festival, CONTACT AT 10th & 2nd [in 1983, at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery], in particular the manifesto [Fred and Ishmael's "Wrong" Contact Manifesto 1983] they wrote as notes to themselves; [Houston-Jones reads aloud parts of the manifesto]; more on Fred Holland, as a performer, and their shared Black punk sensibility; more on the duet including its underlying concepts; his and Holland's next work, in 1984, entitled Cowboys, dreams, and ladders, including its conceptual origins in the erased history of Black cowboys; their earlier work Babble: first impressions of the white man; more on Cowboys, dreams, and ladders; winning a "Bessie" [New York Dance and Performance] award in 1984 for this work just before leaving for Nicaragua; situations that caused him to feel in danger in Nicaragua; his approach to improvisation including devising strategies for making an artistic statement; trying to guide his students into thinking about improvisation as a form of composition; his use of teaching exercises performed with closed eyes; his solo 1984 work f/i/s/s/i/o/n/i/n/g for a series at P.S.1 [now MoMA PS1] and its use of songs from David Dudely's [1965] album There's a star-spangled banner waving somewhere; his difficulty with working alone when creating or rehearsing a work; the perception by many of improvisation as a less-rehearsed type of dance as contrasted with the reality of his rigorous approach; reasons he prefers to work as an independent artist rather than as part of a company; working at FOOD [an artist-run restaurant] to support himself; some of his appearances on film including in the film Bail jumper, with Joy Lee, Relatives, the 1989 film directed by Julie Dash of his work Part 2: Relatives, and a very brief appearance dancing in the 1984 film Brother from another planet; (very briefly) his short time at the Gallatin school at N.Y.U.; John Bernd, including Bernd's association with PS 122, their friendship and Houston-Jones' dancing in Bernd's (1982-1985) series Lost and found [Lost and found (scenes from a life)]; the three versions of this work including the section Tai chi junkies; other influences on this work including a quasi-baptism Bernd witnessed at Rockaway Beach, [John Singleton] Copley's painting [Watson and the shark], and Bernd's intensifying struggle with HIV/AIDS; his first becoming aware of HIV/AIDS in 1981 when Bernd and other people he knew became sick; THEM, his 1985 work-in-progress collaboration with Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane; its 1986 expanded version, which included implicit references to HIV/AIDS; their collaborative process; developing the dance part including the material contributed by Jonathan Walker and Houston-Jones' solo with a goat (or sheep) carcass; his relationship with religion, beginning with his being raised as a Baptist; his work with God's Love We Deliver as the most concrete aspect of his HIV/AIDS activism; Maryette Charlton and her role in getting John Bernd's papers including documentation of his career as a choreographer and dancer into the Harvard Library [part of the Harvard Theatre Collection]; his feelings of depression and hopelessness in the face of the AIDS crisis and other political developments during the Reagan era; his tendency to put himself in danger, for example traveling in Nicaragua during a civil war; the reasons he typically prefers collaborating to working alone; his 1986 work Adolfo und Maria [: 'Duh guvnuh's dancin' gal] including the title references to Adolf Hitler and Mary Wigman; the work's combining of cabaret and minstrelsy forms; his use of blackface in this work; the "politics of dancing" process exercises he created including their binary nature; how he has used political satire in this work; the meaning of his statement about "revising society's history by critiquing its performance history" as his efforts through his work to prevent the erasure of history; the diverse nature of the works he has created; his desire for his work to provoke thinking and feeling; his belief that the universality of the human body in itself and in motion evokes an audience's empathetic response to what they are seeing on stage.
  • Streaming file 3 (approximately 1 hour and 51 minutes). Ishmael Houston-Jones speaks with Alex Fialho about his publicly-announced decision around 2001 not to create any new work for the time being; his decision around 2009 to re-visit his work THEM upon Vallejo Gantner's invitation to create a work for Performance Space 122; revisiting his (1982) Parallels series in 2012 in response to Judy Hussie-Taylor's invitation to be an artist-curator for the Platform series at Danspace Project; his interest in exploring areas that had been missing from his perception and knowledge of Black dance in 1982 as well as his interest in exploring being Black and the parameters of post-modern and experimental dance as of 2012; some of the artists he presented as part of the Platform series including Nora Chipaumure, Okwui Okpokwasili, Darell Jones, Will Rawls, Ralph Lemon, and Nari Ward; his resistance [in 1991] to accepting a significant NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] grant due to the restrictions on content; the significance of his dancing in darkness [in his work In the dark / Without hope, created in conjunction with the exhibition The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity]; more on this work including its relation to the death of John Bernd, its reference to the title of Frieda Kahlo's painting Without hope, and his use of a cinder block as a prop; his 1981 solo DEAD; his thoughts on death; his 1988 work Prologue to the end of everything; his writing and its role in his (dance) works; his first published book, in 2018, Fat and other stories; his interest in creative writing and fiction, including the influence of Dennis Cooper; his [1989] collaboration with Cooper [and John DeFazio and John B. Walker] on a theater piece entitled Knife/tape/rope; his 1995 collaboration with Keith Hennessy and Patrick Scully: Unsafe/Unsuited; (briefly) touring, including an anecdote about his first tour, with his mother; more on his decision around 2001 not to create new work for an indefinite period; (briefly) his teaching and making of works on students during this time; his heart attack and subsequent surgery, in 2013; his collaboration with Emily Wexler, 13 love songs dot dot dot, including some of the music used as accompaniment; more on his teaching, including at the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU [NYU Tisch School of the Arts] and UArts Pennsylvania [University of the Arts]; his enjoyment of mentoring; (briefly) two of his former students, John Gutierrez and Dan Safer; (briefly) some teachers who influenced him, including Joan Skinner and Dana Reitz; names some of the artists whose work he found inspiring, including Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Meredith Monk,Tim Miller, Peter Rose and Jeff Weiss; names some of the artists in whose work he has appeared including Ping Chong, Stephanie Skura, Yvonne Meier, Lionel Popkin, John Bernd, and Fred Holland; more on his reworking of the Parallels series in 2012 at Danspace, in particular his goal of exploring and expanding the sphere of non-mainstream Black dance; how Judy Hussie-Taylor influenced his approach to this project; trying to get his arms around the next generation of Black experimental choreographers; names some of the people he sees as part of this group: André Zachery, NIC Kay, Malcolm-x Betts, Angie Pittman, Jess Pretty, and J. Bouey; more on his curatorial projects including the relatively informal DraftWork series, at Danspace; Lost and Found [Platform 2016: Lost and Found], the multi-program Platforms series on the AIDS crisis and dance that he co-curated with Will Rawls; some of the programs he found especially moving including the evenings curated by Pamela Sneed and Eva Yaa Asantewa; Variations on themes from lost and found: scenes from a life and other works by John Bernd, Houston-Jones' reconstruction and reimagining of John Bernd's last works [including Lost and found: scenes from a life]; the process of creating the work, with Miguel Gutierrez and (lighting designer) Carol Mullins, including the liberties they took with the original Bernd works; ways in which the dancers prepared including seeing films of the original Bernd works; reasons he feels a strong connection to St. Mark's (Church-in-the Bowery); reflects on the possible reasons as to why the work of some artists was saved and archived and others was not; how he feels when seeing films of himself performing in the 1980s; reflections on the dance world today including two memorable works he recently saw, by Miguel Gutierrez and Dana Michel, respectively; how aging is affecting him as a dancer; his role as a member of the board [of various arts-related entities] including how he views his responsibilities to such boards; the importance to him of intergenerational dialogue; his two weekly touchstones: his church attendance and his (talk) therapy session; his 1996 work Eyes, mouth, and all the rest: surrendering to the desire(s) of others; his most recent work, Relations (2018), performed with Bebe Miller and Ralph Lemon; his feelings about their appearing on stage together; his view of his body as an archive; his unapologetic sense and expression of himself throughout his career including examples of performances he found cathartic; the question of his legacy including his general distrust of writers (about his work), both positive and negative; knowing that he cannot control the narrative (of his legacy); his hope that young dance artists of color will be aware of his work and that of his contemporaries.
Alternative Title
  • Dance Oral History Project.
  • Dance Audio Archive.
  • Sound recordings.
  • Oral histories.
  • Interview with Ishmael Houston-Jones conducted by Alex Fialho on December 13 and 14, 2019, in New York City (N.Y.), for the Dance Oral History Project of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
  • For transcript see *MGZMT 3-3494
  • As of March 2023, the audio recording of this interview can be made available at the Library for the Performing Arts by advanced request to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The audio files for this interview are undergoing processing and eventually will be available for streaming.
  • Sound quality is excellent.
  • Title supplied by cataloger.
Access (note)
  • Transcripts may not be photographed or reproduced without permission.
Funding (note)
  • The creation and cataloging of this recording was made possible in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The support of the National Endowment for the Arts is also gratefully acknowledged.
Source (note)
  • 0# PAMI;
Call Number
*MGZMT 3-3494
  • 1342788557
  • 1342788557
Houston-Jones, Ishmael, Interviewee.
Interview with Ishmael Houston-Jones, 2019/ Conducted by Alex Fialho on December 13 and 14, 2019, in New York City (N.Y.); Producer: Dance Oral History Project .
Playing Time
Type of Content
spoken word
Type of Medium
Type of Carrier
online resource
Digital File Characteristics
audio file
Restricted Access
Transcripts may not be photographed or reproduced without permission.
Recorded for for the Dance Oral History Project of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts 2019, December 13 and 14 New York (N.Y.).
The creation and cataloging of this recording was made possible in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The support of the National Endowment for the Arts is also gratefully acknowledged.
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Added Author
Fialho, Alex, Interviewer.
Research Call Number
*MGZMT 3-3494
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