A Look Back to a Time of Feral Play and Fear

By   Claudia Rocco

OCT. 29, 2010

New York has always been a city that favors big, splashy events and institutions. In such a world a small, scruffy theater like Performance Space 122 and the artists it has presented for the last 30 years are often overlooked.

This is a mistake. P.S. 122 is one of New York’s most important and vital cultural centers, a living repository of an indelible artistic history without which we would be vastly poorer.

On Wednesday night a moment from this history returned: “Them,” a work conceived by the composer Chris Cochrane, the writer Dennis Cooper and the choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, who also directed the all-male effort (with seven younger performers). “Them” had its premiere at P.S. 122 in 1986, when the city was in the grip of the AIDS crisis. As Burt Supree wrote in a Village Voice review that year, “ ‘Them’ isn’t a piece about AIDS, but AIDS constricts its view and casts a considerable pall.”

In 2010 this grip has eased somewhat, but it is still very much present. “Them,” likewise, reads differently now. But it does not feel like a reconstruction. It is poetic and disturbing, backed by the full force of its history without being diminished by it.

As Mr. Supree went on to write, “Them” is a meditation on “some ways men are with men.” These men, and their ways, come and go onstage in waves of bodies, held by Mr. Cochrane’s muscular, sexy guitar playing and Mr. Cooper’s quiet, elegant reading.

“I thought about love,” Mr. Cooper told us. “I think I confused what they did with it.”

Mr. Cochrane and Mr. Cooper are present throughout, situated at corners of the black rectangular theater like anchors, often barely illuminated by Joe Levasseur’s spare, low lighting. But Mr. Houston-Jones appears only in the beginning, embracing and blindfolding a man (Arturo Vidich) whose full face we never see, and offering a too-brief solo that is something of an overture: a hinging, fluid dance that seethes with an almost feral desire.

Everyone from Michael Jackson to Trisha Brown glints in his youthful frame. But there’s nothing derivative here; if you could just watch him for long enough, it seems, you’d understand all the impossible, conflicting things we need to be fully alive.

Mr. Houston-Jones is a master improviser (the movement here is improvisational), and the collaborators achieve a certain balance of heft and import. The 2010 cast is full of compelling dancers, but they have different information in their bodies; they’re at once less sophisticated and more technically honed, and this sometimes makes them too careful with the awkwardly beautiful grappling phrases.

I missed having older bodies onstage, and this is perhaps to the point. Mr. Cooper’s words are in part a litany of loss, and the younger men can seem like innocent phantoms. They stalk around sulkily. They play at stickball, and at being tough. Mostly they play at consuming each other and themselves, hurling and buckling their bodies as if trying to escape their skins and melt into one another.

But there’s no escape. Mr. Vidich, still blindfolded, ends up on a thin mattress wrestling with the carcass of a goat, its throat slit. The smell of the dead animal, meaty and thick, is almost unbearable. Blood smears the white fabric. It’s horrible to watch. It’s also somehow beautiful and, despite the uncomfortable ethical questions, necessary: The us witnessing the them.


By Peter Watrous

Published: March 18, 1993

Chris Cochrane Knitting Factory.

One of the worst aspects of the musical experimentation that took place on the Lower East Side in the early 1980's was a reluctance on the part of composers to embrace pleasure. American popular music, which was usually lurking in the background of the performances, has always been there to dispense something rich, either rhythmically or harmonically. It hasn't had to do so stupidly, whether represented by James Brown or Duke Ellington.

A group led by the guitarist Chris Cochrane and including Marc Ribot on guitar, David Shea on keyboards, Sebastian Steinberg on bass and Ed Ware on drums moved into the Knitting Factory on Friday for two sets. At the second, they let pleasure take over.

A few tunes, based on the polyrhythmic and machinelike rhythms of funk, just kept going. Where quick cuts, the musical equivalent of an interrupted conversation, used to be the structure of choice, the band instead piled up ideas and sounds and textures, until what had been a tune's gambit was long ago buried and forgotten. On one piece, based on a sample taken from Miles Davis's "All Blues," the band stuck to the rhythms of the song, then slowly superimposed a new meter, adding vicious guitar noise on top. By the time the musicians were finished, the piece had become clamorous and extroverted.

At times Mr. Shea, dropping a sample of a woman singing or of loud drums into the middle of a performance, washed out what the band had played, the way a wild river can wash out a road. It was a good way for the music to change directions, and the band, noise and all, was there to make pleasure intelligent.