by Lucas de Lima on Jan.16, 2011
This past Monday I caught the revival of Them at the Abrons Arts Center in New York. A violent and vivid dance/text/music piece, Them is a collaboration between a choreographer (Houston-Jones), a writer (Cooper), and a musician (Cochrane) as well as several young male dancers. Cooper calmly narrates over the dancer’s writhing bodies, which Houston-Jones ushers in over Cochrane’s chaotic guitar playing. All are present on stage in what is, significantly, both an interdisciplinary and intergenerational effort.
I say “significantly” because the original performance of Them took place in 1986 in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. As Burt Supree wrote in the Village Voice that year, “Them isn’t a piece about AIDS, but AIDS constricts its view and casts a considerable pall.” And as Houston-Jones himself admits, “the piece was made at a very specific time/place/circumstance and that is what makes THEM, them.”
So then why the recreation of such a historically situated piece? When asked about this potential act of 80’s nostalgia, Houston-Jones claimed to be “an artist who is seeking to make a history text of himself, especially while he is very much alive”; he “really care[s] about how [his] work is seen and that it is seen and remembered.”
Yet, I see more than artistic legacy at stake in this recreation. While the original performers in Them were experiencing and channeling the AIDS crisis as it emerged, the young dancers in the current cast find themselves playing out the fear and panic of a historical moment they never witnessed. This moment inscribes itself on their bodies when they feel their armpits for swollen lymph nodes. Flanked from different sides of the room by the older men who conceived Them, the young dancers become children of a perversely reproductive nostalgia. A nostalgia not for the AIDS epidemic, to be sure, but rather for the act of youthful yearning itself: a yearning then, if not so much now, pronounced and produced through the taboo and risk it carried.
The temporal traversal inherent in Them‘s reconstruction finds unexpected force at the end of the piece. If nostalgia is implicit in the recreation itself, in the transference of somatic memory into young men’s bodies, in their tracing of fatal desire, nostalgia for prehistory erupts with the appearance of a dead goat. Here, the piece perfectly animalizes and eroticizes Joyelle’s concept of necropastoralism: a blindfolded man wrestles the pastoral animal on a mattress, even inserting his head into its hollowed-out abdomen, until it vibrates with life after death. Eventually, both collapse in a pool of blood.
If the animal was our first metaphor, in Them the animal becomes the metaphor we end up filling out–and literalizing–through ‘blind’ desire. Then, suddenly, briefly, there is no “them”: a white sheet falls on animal and man. As if, by spiraling into infectious nostalgia, man could reverse and correct his humanization.