New York City-based choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones was present in several ways on Temple’s campus this year: as guest artist, educator, and the subject of scholarly research. Dance students from all degree tracks were invited to participate in his creative process and learn about the numerous contributions this Bessie-award winning artist has made to the field of concert dance over the span of his thirty-plus year career. I personally had the pleasure of participating in and reflecting on Houston-Jones’ work from several angles.
As an invited guest artist, Houston-Jones spent an intensive week over winter break creating a new work with fifteen students. Beginning with the late November audition and continuing through the first half of the intensive week of 9am-5pm rehearsals, Houston-Jones offered improvisational structures and somatically-driven performance exercises. These practices were intended to deepen our skills as compelling performers and spontaneous dance-makers. Like the majority of Houston-Jones’ work, the spoken text and choreographic material in the dance was developed from the cast’s personal contributions and shared collaboration: as individuals, we responded to the prompt “In a perfect world…” and created movement phrases as a group. Houston-Jones’s emphasis on process over product meant that even after the structure of the dance was “set” the cast practiced techniques that would assist us in seeing compositional opportunities and react as a group in accord with a set of rules. In a Perfect World was performed February 3rd and 4th in the Faculty Concert in Conwell Theater.
Houston-Jones is also a subject of dance and critical improvisation scholar Danielle Goldman’s current research project. Goldman, author of the book I Want To Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (2010), is a professor at The New School in New York City. Her January 24th Dance Studies Colloquium lecture focused on several artists featured in the Danspace Program Platform 2016: Lost & Found that Houston-Jones co-curated. The following day in the Directed Study in Dance Research doctoral seminar, Goldman presented her research about Houston-Jones’s THEM, a 2012 reprisal of a 1985 work on the AIDS crisis. Akin to her Colloquium address, Goldman’s engagement with THEM centers on themes of community, lineage and history, and intergenerational mentoring in the New York City postmodern/contemporary performance dance scene.
The multiple opportunities afforded by Temple University’s Department of Dance to engage with the work of Houston-Jones is a reminder about how interconnected the professional worlds of dance-making and performance, dance education, and dance scholarship are —and that studying dance and dancing are critical practices that call for on-going curiosity, attentive contemplation, and responsive action.
Read about M.F.A. student Alissa Elegant’s experience participating in the residency here!
–Elizabeth June Bergman is a second year doctoral student with a research focus on the dance work of Michael Jackson. She holds a MFA in Dance Performance from The University of Iowa and a BA in Dance from DeSales University. Elizabeth’s improvisation-based performance work incorporates her training in hatha yoga, ballet, modern dance, and somatic techniques and her interest in history, cultural memory, and critical theory.