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A talented ensemble vividly reconstructs Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper, and Chris Cochrane's landmark performance piece about youth, sexuality, and death.

A scene from Them
(© Michael Hart)
Sensuality and violence collide in Them, a vivid reconstruction of the landmark 1986 performance piece created by director/choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, writer/narrator Dennis Cooper, and composer/musician Chris Cochrane. All three of those artists have reunited for this excellent new staging at P.S. 122, and are joined by a talented ensemble in this moving meditation on youth, sexuality, and death.

As Cooper intones softly into a microphone tales of young men who took their own lives, it's difficult not to think about the recent series of gay teen suicides that have occurred across the country in recent months. The motives for the deaths that Cooper describes are not always clear, and in some cases they are not even self-inflicted, but instead the result of accidents or illness. Still, there's an eerie contemporary resonance that makes the piece seem freshly minted, even though it was originally seen over two decades ago.

Cooper's text also details a number of same-sex hook-ups with a variety of teenage boys and young men. There's a nostalgic quality to the narrative, with the stories mostly focused around the moments just prior to sex, rather than the act itself. The gentleness of Cooper's words here may surprise those familiar with some of the author's other works, which are often marked by extremely graphic descriptions of sex, sadism, and violence.

Indeed, it's actually in Houston-Jones' choreography that the more brutal aspects of the performance are revealed. Seven dancers -- Joey Cannizzaro, Felix Cruz, Niall Noel, Jeremy Pheiffer, Jacob Slominski, Arturo Vidich, and Enrico D. Wey -- perform a partially improvised movement score that often keeps the men's bodies off balance and incorporates bursts of physical violence. There's a rawness to the way they move, and a sexual heat that makes their interactions sizzle.

In one of many highlights of the evening, two of the men cruise each other, beginning with tentative glances and slowly building with slight touches, faster movements, and a final collapse against the back wall that is as aggressive as it is sexy. The most infamous sequence of Them involves a blindfolded performer wrestling with a dead goat. It's extremely disturbing, particularly when he inserts his head into the animal's carcass. This segment brings death onto the stage in such a literal, visceral way that it's impossible to ignore.

Accompanying both spoken text and movement is the live music from Cochrane. Some moments feature a jazzy underscoring, while others a loud wailing on the electric guitar. The music is dynamic and seems to literally propel the dancers into frenzied motion.

Houston-Jones' own performance is limited to the beginning of the show, as he participates in a silent ritual, followed by a dance solo that proves that the now 59-year-old artist continues to exude a powerful onstage presence that is just as compelling as the younger dancers who are showcased for the remainder of this beautifully realized work.


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