From Switzerland, Ireland, and the U.S.: Guys on Guys

Compagnie Philippe Saire, John Scott, and the revival of THEM

But they also talk to each other—asking to stop and start a passage over, or calling out the names of the moves as they go. They take turn impersonating (very briefly) the heroine of a Spanish soap opera. Snipe tells a joke. They embark on a punching sequence, and Snipe criticizes his pal for getting too fey with it. Snipe announces that he will do a series of about-to-explode moves—locating the urge in an arm, a leg, the floor—and asks someone in a front seat which he prefers.

Does this sound a bit corny? It’s not. It’s wonderfully enjoyable, skillfully paced, and full of small surprises. When did you last hear a man in the act of hoisting another, larger guy, gasp out, “Oh sacred heart of Jesus!”? In its own way, Actions tells us much about affability under pressure, diligence, and a feistiness that doesn’t negate the men’s respect for each other.


The revival of the controversial 1986 THEM—a collaboration among choreographer-director Ishmael Houston-Jones, writer Dennis Cooper, and guitarist-composer Chris Cochrane—is, like Saire’s Lonesome Cowboy, rife with men flinging themselves at other men with a terrifying violence. But it’s profoundly different in intent and effect. THEM premiered at P.S.122 during the years when the number of deaths from AIDS was mounting at an alarming pace, and the carefree sexual hedonism of the 1970s was becoming a kind of Russian roulette. Maybe that’s why Cooper, reading his text in a quiet voice at a side wall of the Abrons Art Center’s Experimental Theater, speaks just of his teen-aged epiphany on seeing, at a distance, youths making out in a park. No only does he enumerate the many men he subsequently slept with; he catalogues sudden deaths by suicide, disease, or accident among people of all ages and genders.

Compagnie Philippe Saire in Lonesome Cowboy
Compagnie Philippe Saire in Lonesome Cowboy
THEM returns, goat carcass and all.
Ian Douglas
THEM returns, goat carcass and all.


Compagnie Philippe Saire’s Lonesome Cowboy
Joyce Theater
January 6 through 9
John Scott’s Actions The Club at La MaMa
January 10 through 11
THEM By Chris Cochrane, Dennis Cooper, and Ishmael Houston-Jones
Abrons Arts Center
January 8 through 10

In Them, love and life and death are violent businesses; they kick the legs out from under you, fall on top of you, violate you. Seated in a corner, Cochrane tackles his guitar as if it needs to be wrestled with before it can snarl and howl and sing out. The seven dancers rarely exit the cramped, brick-walled black-box theater (dramatically lit by Joe Levasseur); between encounters, they lounge, prowl, watch one another. Because they improvise their movements based on a score created by Houston-Jones, their physicality has a reckless edge. They bang into one another sometimes, stumble into or out of embraces, or fall with a crash. Watching Niall Noel and Felix Cruz tussle near the beginning, I think of contact improvisation performed at the edge of a precipice—fluid, yet dangerous, expert but innocent of peril. The movement seems to start things it can’t finish: Becoming becomes being.

Twenty-four years after the P.S.122 performances, Houston-Jones cedes some of his role to Arturo Vidich. Yet in the first few minutes, after embarking on an amazing, twisty solo—swiveling and staggering smoothly on bent knees, slinging his legs around, coming very close to the first row of spectators—Houston-Jones introduces two gestures that will reappear near the end of the piece; he palpates the lymph gland in his armpit, staring into an imagined mirror, and traces the vein running up one arm.

The men—all uncannily wonderful dancers—sometimes tangle in an orgiastic group, freeze there, separate, and re-form. Enrico D. Wey explodes into a disastrous, corkscrewing solo. The challenges flung between text, music, and dancing seem to get darker and more perilous. Cooper describes looking down at a pickup the morning after sex and thinking, “What did I ever see in you?” Gone are the boys of summer. Noel systematically pushes Jacob Slominski onto a mattress that has been dragged in and presses his victim’s head to one side; I lose count of how many times Slominski stands up to be pushed down again.

In the last horrifying scene, Vidich is led blindfolded to the mattress, and the eviscerated, de-boned carcass of a goat is thrown at him. He wrestles with it as if he can’t get rid of it, even as he’s pressing it closer to him; he sticks his head into the bloody cavity of its belly. When he collapses, Jeremy Pheiffer covers him and the animal with a cloth. Then, while some of the men speculatively touch their armpits, the glands below their ears, and their crotches, Wey tries to hold Joey Cannizzaro up on legs that keep collapsing. Finally Pheiffer tackles the men one by one and lays them out, tossing Cannizzaro back and forth with Wey for a while. He’s stalking the last person left standing when the lights black out. A death guide? Or a man burying his memories?

The goat. I couldn’t watch it. I tried to think what it meant to Houston-Jones, Cooper, and Cochrane. I thought of sacrificial victims and of the goat song, the tragos, of ancient Greece—that precursor of tragedy. I accepted the struggle as a gory metaphor for fighting against death’s embrace. Yet the goat stubbornly retains its own identity as an animal slaughtered for food, and THEM’s climactic image comes dangerously close to endangering this stunning work’s impact as a whole. As someone who’d seen THEM before said, “After a while, what I remembered was the goat.”

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