Past Becomes Present

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The choreographer Bill T. Jones, center, in conversation with Lost and Found curators Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls on the opening night of the Platform. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Remembering and recovering as a performative project… what has been lost and how are we finding it

I scrawled these lines into my notebook on November 19th, the closing day of Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now, the eleventh iteration of Danspace Project’s Platforms (multiweek series of events organized by guest curators). I believe that they were spoken by Alex Fialho, programs manager of Visual AIDS, who was one of the participants during a four-hour “Conversation Without Walls”: an afternoon of discussions, screenings, and performances that attempted to bring to some kind of conclusion the five-week Platform, which was organized by artist-curators Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls.

Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace’s executive director and chief curator, describes the Platforms as “exhibitions that unfold over time.” The durational aspect, as with much performance, is crucial; entering in the final stretch, as I did with Lost and Found, feels like entering a close-knit tribe that, however welcoming, has over time developed ways of doing and being that you cannot fully access. This isn’t a bad feeling; but it’s an important one to pay attention to.

“We wanted to stay close to home with this Platform,” Houston-Jones said on the 19th, describing the East Village dance community that helped to inspire Lost and Found. He talked about the choreographer John Bernd, whose gums wouldn’t stop bleeding; how he didn’t know why. “This was the beginning of my consciousness of this thing called GRID.”

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My fragmented memories are of a fragile-looking boy, the still (calm? or maybe just stunned, maybe just exhausted) center of a surrounding swirl of hysteria and hatred. Ryan White: I think he was the first time HIV/AIDS really entered my consciousness. I was a kid, living in rural Maine, and the virus seemed at once far away, and a vaguely enveloping, fearful threat; when I got a little older, it was a sexual bogeyman, even worse than pregnancy — a thing that could happen to you if you did the “wrong” things. But mostly it was a thing that happened to other people.

That feeling lasted until my early twenties, when I was living in New York and increasingly immersed in the contemporary dance world. Suddenly, and not suddenly at all, HIV/AIDS wasn’t a terrible abstraction that happened to others; it was a very real condition affecting people I knew. People I loved. The simplistic idea of wrongness fell away.

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Amara Tabor-Smith, performing at the West Wave Dance Festival. Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

New York is one epicenter of HIV/AIDS in America. The other is San Francisco. Both have been indelibly shaped by this virus. Both continue to suffer terrible losses, and to find beautiful ways to respond. Danspace Project has just found one such way. And it is my privilege to announce that, in partnership with CounterPulse and Danspace Project, Open Space is extending this conversation without walls, exploring various themes, questions, histories, and lineages as they relate, both directly and obliquely, to the impact HIV/AIDS continues to have on the Bay Area. We are doing so online, and, on February 4th, at CounterPulse, with the dance, theater and performance artists Annie Danger, Xandra Ibarra, Monique Jenkinson, Rhodessa Jones, Keith Hennessy, Brontez Purnell, Helen Shumaker, and Amara Tabor-Smith. I am honored that they have all accepted my invitation to share their thoughts and experiences for Lost and Found: Bay Area Edition, and I hope you will join us.

I have lived in the Bay Area for less than a year, and am just beginning to discover the varied richness of its myriad artistic communities — so much personal finding to do, at a time when so many of the narratives are ones of loss. Part of my research has been informed by my organizing of this Lost and Found (which, it must be said, is not meant in any way to be representative of the many Bay Area performance worlds, or to offer definitive narratives of them). To read David Gere’s How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS; to discover grainy video footage of the pioneering and galvanizing experimental choreographer Ed Mock, who died in 1986 of AIDS-related illnesses; or even just to spend a lunch hour soaking up numerous strands of performance and art histories from the likes of the endlessly generous longtime San Franciscan Margaret Tedesco, is to see how much there is still to learn. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.

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