nytheatre.com review by Anthony Johnston
October 21, 2010
First presented at Performance Space 122 in stages from 1984-86, Them sparked controversy with its fearless exploration of gay male relationships and the onset of the AIDS epidemic. The piece culminated in a terrifying duet between creator Ishmael Houston-Jones and an animal carcass on a dirty mattress—and nearly got the space shut down.
The 2010 Them, which opened last Thursday as part of P.S. 122's 30th Anniversary Season and is co-produced through a reconstruction residency at The New Museum, is just as explosive and vital as ever. The revival reunites original creator/performers Houston-Jones (direction/choreography), Denis Cooper (text), and Chris Cochrane (music); and introduces seven emerging young male dancers: Joey Cannizzaro, Felix Cruz, Niall Noel, Jeremy Pheiffer, Jacob Slominski, Arturo Vidich, and Enrico D. Wey.
Cooper reads his journal-entry style prose, Cochrane plays chaotic electric guitar, and dancers move with a passionate muscularity, a desperate longing to find connection with their partners that is at once clumsily endearing and violently provocative.
Houston-Jones's choreography, at its core, evokes the true nature of sex and the opposition at work in any intimate relationship; sex is messy, love is rough, vulnerability is scary, and the need for connection is human.
Before turning the stage over to the new dancers, Houston-Jones opens the show himself with a beautifully frenetic movement improvisation—it was thrilling to see him take the stage, fully in his element, inside his Them again, 25 years later. Since the early 1980's Houston-Jones has been a fixture in New York City's downtown performance / dance scene and his deeply personal and physically intense works have redefined the way people see modern dance.
The dancers improvise within a choreographed score by Houston-Jones and this element of the unknown keeps the piece always fresh, always surprising—and dangerous. I found myself on the edge of my seat, enthralled by the "alive-ness" in the room, never knowing what was coming next.
Cooper's text is sweet, nostalgic, confessional. He confides in us, and his honesty and openness allow us to see ourselves in his stories. Something about the way he speaks, the way he shares, is so familiar.
Cochrane's guitar fills the room with sound and fury and drive and darkness. Sometimes the music and dancers work as one, soaring up and out and everywhere at once, and other times, the guitar—like a character in this story all its own—sharply pokes and prods its way through the space, distorted and jarring, just as desperate to make a mark, to find its own way, as any dancer on the stage.
As in the original piece, Them's climax is the shocking dance between a blindfolded young man and the body of a dead goat on an old mattress. It is with this sequence that the reference to the early AIDS scare becomes most poignant—capturing the enormous sense of pain, confusion, fear, and randomness of the time. The final image is of young men checking their necks, underarms, and crotches for swollen glands—one of the first symptoms of HIV infection. This repeated gesture ends the piece with a looming sense of dread.
While Them depicts a difficult and desperate search for connection, ultimately there is hope to be found in the connection it provides for its artists, audiences, and community through its performance.