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In Performance: Variations on Themes from Lost and Found (American Realness)

Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd
Ishmael Houston-Jones and Miguel Gutierrez with Nick Hallett and Jennifer Monson
presented by Danspace Project, Gibney Dance & American Realness 2018
January 9-13

A mysterious crash reverberated through the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church, interrupting co-directors Ishmael Houston-Jones and Miguel Gutierrez as they stood up to introduce the performance. The two artists looked up to the balcony for the source of the sound. “John’s here,” said Gutierrez with a sly smile.

John Bernd was a vital member of the New York downtown dance community in the 1980’s, creating work until his death from AIDS complications in 1988. Conceived by Houston-Jones, who danced in Bernd’s work (as did Jennifer Monson, who consulted on the project), these Variations incorporate choreography, music, text, drawings, and objects from the pieces Bernd made in the last seven years of his life. In their program note, Houston-Jones and Gutierrez refer to the piece as “an experiment in reconstruction; a remembering and re-imagining of the work of John Bernd.”

As performed by seven charismatic dancers (Toni Carlson, Talya Epstein, Alvaro Gonzalez, Charles Gowin, Madison Krekel, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, and Alex Rodabaugh), the performance overflows with a joy so simple and profound it feels holy. The dancers throw themselves into unison phrases, coming together in small groups or a duet set in counterpoint to the rest of the company, melding and recombining into new formations. During several improvisatory sequences, they get down to Prince and hoedown to Aaron Copland, making delighted eye contact with one another. Resting alongside of these buoyant moments are quieter images of healing and suffering, exhaustion and care. Gonzalez gently washes Krekel’s bare back, as Gowin wrings out a sponge over his own head. Three dancers each offer a steady, supportive arm to three others as they shudder, gasping for breath.

Bernd’s compositions (in haunting new arrangements by Nick Hallett) hold the triumphant and mournful currents of the piece together. Ceremonial, almost liturgical, they call forth a fierce, determined resolve that finds further expression in the dancers’ bodies. A resolve to continue to dance, to continue to truly see and engage with those around you, to continue to live. This determination reaches its apex in a breathtaking sequence at the center of the piece, which sees all seven performers adding ingredients one by one to a blender: medication, Mylanta, yogurt, vitamins, greens, apple cider, Rolling Rock, a piece of paper with the word SCRAM written on it. Forming a half-circle, each dancer lays a hand on the blender, and together they offer up a forceful incantation. An individual’s recipe for fighting disease becomes a communal ritual summoning queer rage, collective grief, historical memory and a resilience that transcends history.

Performed in the same space as Bernd’s original Lost and Found trilogy (and even lit, stunningly, by his original collaborator Carol Mullins), Variations is undoubtedly an act of reverence, but it is not a memorial, much less a re-animation. It is a vibrant, living conversation between artists and their past—their former colleagues and creative ancestors. A conversation between those of us who have died and those of us who are living with their memory, their legacy. and the occasional crash from the balcony that reminds us that they are still here.

Photo: Ian Douglas

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Philip Wesley Gates is a director, performance maker, and writer/scholar currently based in Pittsburgh. Deploying queer, choreographic, and participatory strategies, their work proposes alternative possibilities and modes of relation. They hold an MFA in Directing from Carnegie Mellon University.

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