Ishmael Houston-Jones on Dance Curation Enhancing Dance Studies

Ishmael Houston-Jones
Ishmael Houston-Jones in Miguel Gutierrez’s performance.

Ishmael Houston-Jones is a long-recognized movement improviser, writer and choreographer. Additionally, he holds positions as curator for organizations located in New York City and Salt Lake City( UT). His involvement in both dance and curation is an appreciable opportunity to investigate the relationships between the shifting fields. He made some time for my questions even while teaching at the American Dance Festival summer school. Thank you Ishmael!

You curate Salt Lake City’s Daughters of Mudson from New York City. What elements go into your decision-making? Do you think you are afforded a level of ‘objectivity’ from such a distance?

I think Ashley Anderson asked me to curate the DoM programs, specifically because I was not from the SLC dance scene and had some, but not much, knowledge of local dance histories and politics. On that level I possessed certain objectivity. From reading the learning to loveDANCEmore journal and speaking with Ashley I received a view of the SLC dance ecology and what seemed to be missing, or at least missing support. I’m not sure I can name what those things were.  I’ll try: for a relatively small dance population Salt Lake was dominated by 2 large and well supported modern dance companies and the ballet. The U of U graduated many talented dancers but if they were not going to leave town or try to join one of the existing companies there seemed to be few opportunities for (young) independent choreographers to develop and show their work. So, one of my foci was independent choreographers who could use support (mainly through visibility and production). I chose artists via video from the Mudson works-in-progress series that seemed to be most probable of being able to complete a work. Personal taste always is a factor, but not a deciding one. As curator I used my standard of what constituted “good” work and computed that with the viability of the w-i-p becoming a fully formed piece and I intuited the niche these artists works might fill in the local dance ecology.

Ishmael Houston-Jones Google image search.
Ishmael Houston-Jones Google image search.

2) What is the role of the curator, be at dance festivals or monthly showings, within the dance sphere? How have you observed this role change over time?

I’m going to cc the email I sent to you previously distinguishing the roles of programmer, presenter, producer, and curator as they relate to dance performance.

Like the term “postmodern” the word “curator” experienced some subtle and some not so subtle shifts of meaning as it moved from the visual art domain to common usage in the performing arts, most specifically dance. The term “curator” has become conflated with “programmer,” “presenter” and “producer.” I feel that sometimes this is because the word “curator” has a more highfaluting or pseudo-sophisticated connotation in the view of some people. I spoke two summers ago at Wesleyan University at ICPP, the Institute for Curatorial Practices in Performances (yes, there is such a thing). Unfortunately, I can’t locate my notes, so I’ll try to recreate them with the help of my online dictionary and Wikipedia.

From Wikipedia’s entry on “Curator:” A curator (from Latin: curare meaning “take care”) is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library or archive) is a content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.

So a curator, in the common sense, is someone who cares for art objects, preserves them and places them into a historical context for a greater public. This is definitely how I saw my role as the chief curator of PLATFORM 2012: Parallels at Danspace Project. I chose the works to be preserved, either through performance, archival video screenings, panel discussions, or perhaps most importantly, a catalog. I sifted through archives to find original footage, photographs, press clips and programs/flyers/press releases/letters from the 1982 series. I chose writers for the catalog. I chose sub-curators for special events. I chose the artists who would be showing new work on most of the mixed bill programs. I tried to show connections. For example, screening excerpts of a recently released documentary film on the1980s-90s New York Vogueing/House scene on the same evening that I showed work by young choreographers whose work is informed by the “the streets, the clubs, the houses.” Or presenting work by Zimbabwe-born contemporary choreographer Nora Chipaumire on the same evening as work by Okwui Okpokwasili, a New Yorker, born to Nigerian immigrant parents to illustrate a link between work that is coming out of Africa today with work by an American artist who is one generation away from the homeland.  This is to say that a lot of thought and care went into the curating of this platform.

On the other hand, I am loath to call myself a curator of the DraftWork series. Though I do put thought into my choices, there is little consideration to contextualization when organizing the shared bills of works-in-progress. It usually comes down to which artist is available on which Saturday afternoons that Danspace has access to Saint Mark’s Church.  Sometimes there are happy accidents when the work of two choreographers seems to mesh or dovetail. Other times, during the discussion with the audience after the showings, I’m forced to speak to the two choreographers separately because they have nothing in common. In this regard I would say that I am a programmer. I choose choreographers who I think will have interesting work to show and fit them into available dates. The discussion with the public is a small attempt at contextualization but mainly it serves as audience building and artist feedback. Danspace Project is the presenter of the series.

Ishmael Houston-Jones' "Them" (1986).
Ishmael Houston-Jones’ “Them” (1986).

I think what I do for Daughters of Mudson falls somewhere between these roles. Taking a step back, I believe that Ashley Anderson asked me to be the “curator” of these shows because the dance scene in Salt Lake City is small and insular and rife with histories and politics of which I am mostly ignorant. I think having someone from outside of that world is probably beneficial for the integrity of the selections. Of course I am at a disadvantage because I have never seen the works live in development at Mudson and I do not know most of the artists as artists (or at all). Also, not being from the SLC scene might make me unbiased, but it also leaves me to use my intuition in choosing a roster of choreography that will add something positive to the SLC dance ecology.  Some of my concerns when selecting work are aesthetic and cultural diversity, work that doesn’t derive directly from the established local canon, (RW, RDT), work that is saying something fresh or saying something in an original way. Since I don’t write program notes, the shows lack a certain contextualization. This was evidenced by Karin Fenn’s rather confusing review of the 2014 edition in SLUG in which she faulted the programming for not being avant-garde. I didn’t see the shows, so she may have been completely correct in her assessment of the work; it was just that her lens was not the lens with which I selected the work.

I would call the role of loveDANCEmore with respect to the Mudson series is as a presenter. Their primary raison d’être is to offer artists opportunities to show their work. Plus they also give a small stipend and some free documentation and PR.

There are very few dance producers currently operating in our world. A producer is someone who supports the creation and/or subsequent performances of that work with, well, money. Other things (rehearsal time and places, commissioning fees, public relations and touring support) may be given as well. But a producer makes a financial commitment to the artists and their work and carries through to the completion of the project.

Most of the small to medium sized venues in New York with which I interface (Danspace Project, PS 122, The Kitchen, NYLA) exist in a situation somewhere between presenter and producer. While the executive/artistic directors at most of these spaces cannot offer full support toward the creation of new work, they all offer some form of backing beyond a fixed artist’s fee or split of the house. Sometimes they receive and disperse commissioning grants; sometimes they can offer a week or two of technical residency or a long rehearsal period in the space. Danspace Project even produces catalogs for their platforms (to which they assign a curator). But it is rare that these organizations are able to fully produce the creation of a new work. Larger arts organizations, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York or the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are able to do this with some of their programming and thus they become producers

1.5) How does your decision-making change when you curate for the works-in-progress showing Draftwork at Danspace?

Since I am part of the NYC dance environment I have seem much of the work from the artists who apply. However, there are always several who are unknown to me. Artists become a part of DraftWork either through application, in which they make a proposal to show a work in development; or they are someone whose work I have seen live and I ask if they are working on anything new that they would like to show in progress.  Again chance and available schedules play a big part in who is selected. There is always this baroque quartet dance among St. Mark’s Church, Danspace Project, the artists and me to fit the program into the dates when the church is free.
My decision making for DraftWork is similar to how I curate DoM, except I am more likely to be familiar with previous work of the artists. I look for potential at any stage of development. I also consider how articulate an artist is when discussing their work, since the audience engagement is an important part of the DraftWork program.

3) How is dance curation different from curating for theatre or the visual arts?

Dance differs from the visual arts primarily in that with painting, sculpture, etc. there is a physical object that has a monetary value and can be bought and sold. With dance you are curating an ephemeral live art experience.  Also there is a much longer history of visual art curation so its meaning in that context is more codified. In the early 21st century we, in dance, are still making it up and trying to define what it means. I actually have not heard “curator” used regarding theater. Back to the visual arts, I think that perhaps installation art, film and video curation may have much in common with both dance and visual arts.

6) Are dance practitioners better dance curators? What changes in the curation when a practitioner curates dance?

I’m not sure if I have a definitive answer to that question. Intuitively I think practitioners would have a specialized knowledge of what to look for and a historical view to where certain works fit with one another. But as a dance practitioner I am almost completely unqualified to organize for example a program of New South Indian Dance or even of experimental ballet. A critic, a scholar, a dance historian with knowledge of those specific fields would be infinitely more qualified than I. Also, the question of objectivity emerges. If the practitioner is currently making pieces of their own, can they be impartial when choosing work. How will their own practice color their selections? Of course critics, scholars, and historians have their prejudices also, but those are not directly related to their own practice. As someone who is still making work, when I curated Platform 2012: Parallels at Danspace, I was careful to assign five sub-curators for special events over the two months. I did this to diffuse my own voice and bias and to add different points of view to the Platform.

5) What was your experience curating Platform 2012:Parallels? There was an interval of three decades between the original showing and the 2012 iteration! Did the two-month event capture the conversations you were aiming to highlight?

The primary questions that acted as theses for the 2012 platform were: “Does “Black Dance” exist?” “If it does exist, what is ‘mainstream’ Black Dance?” “If there is such a thing as mainstream Black Dance, who is making work today that pushes beyond that mainstream?” I think the Platform did what I thought it might do; it presented more questions than it answered. It provoked discussions. It presented a wide array of possibilities. The temporal distance between 1982 and 2012 was somewhat taken care of by having me as chief curator and three others from the 1980s as sub-curators (Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar). They as well as Gus Solomons wrote pieces for the catalog. Wend Perron wrote a memorial to Harry Sheppard, one of the 1982 artists, who died in the 1990s. We also published the original program, poster, review, and letters of inquiry from 1982 in the catalog. Along with many photographs. We also had essays concerning the current climate written by Thomas Defrantz and a young choreographer, Will Rawls, curated two programs. One where original video footage from the 1982 series was shown followed by a panel discussion by some of us who were present at the time. Will also screened excerpts from a heated debate between Bill T. Jones and Steve Paxton to illustrate what the thinking about Black Dance and Postmodernism was in the 1980s. The other program Will curated studied 21st century media for the presentation of dance (by Black folks). This meant mostly looking at an assortment of clips from YouTube and other internet sources. I think I did a good job of bridging the 30 years between the platform and the original series.

4) What lens does curation add to dance and what does it take away? Should curation be a required module within dance studies?

The most important thing the lens of the curator offers when she or he uses it well is context. Rather than simply programming a series of dance performances based solely on the taste and predilections of the programmer combined with desire to have “butts in the seats,” curation is a way of looking at specific niches in a very broad field and to put them within a historical and/or critical frame. I think curation, when done correctly, elevates the art form by treating it seriously as art worth studying, debating, analyzing, etc.  I am loath to pronounce “shoulds,” but for the all the reasons given above, I think the study of dance curation could definitely enhance the study of dance.