In precise, rhythmic unison, two expressionless men in black trousers and tailcoats partner working vacuum cleaners—hoisting them, spinning with them, jumping over them, straddling them—twitching the cords out of the way when necessary. The final moment? They feed the wires through their hands until they find the extension cord and pop the plugs.
It all takes under two minutes.
Justin Jones and Chris Yon, less than a year out of the Dance Department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, are already infamous in downtown circles for such pieces. Jones (tall, skinny, major cheekbones) and Yon (shorter, more compact, major deadpan) did everything they were supposed to do at Tisch—performed in works by their peers and by guest choreographers like Paul Taylor (Yon), Tere O’Connor (Jones), and Bill T. Jones (Jones), and choreographed pretty respectable dances. But they’d pegged each other early on, across a crowded beginners’ ballet class, as budding mavericks. Justin: “Chris was wearing a Headbanger’s Ball T-shirt, and the shirt in the back was totally gone. Like he’d washed it so many times there was nothing left. I thought, ‘I have to work with this person.’ ”
Yon grew up in Los Angeles, Jones in suburban Illinois. Yon studied dance in high school with ’60s original Rudy Perez, acquiring from him a stoic persona, an interest in pedestrian movement, and a willingness to challenge an audience. Jones danced in musicals and started a theater company. They showed each other their old tapes—Justin’s jazzy, theatrical, rhythmic stuff, Chris’s appearances in art galleries. Justin: “I was like, ‘You had art galleries where you grew up? We had corn.’ ”
The partnership was immediately and interestingly transgressive. They planned, says Justin, “to say the most with doing the least.” Their first collaboration, Exapno Mapcase (Harpo Marx’s name in Cyrillic, drawn from his autobiography), consisted of 20 minutes of vignettes with many blackouts and light changes. They think it may have influenced Tisch to set an eight-minute limit on student pieces. For their second work, Lo, the Vanishing Oryx, they took over a studio before a performance and, for decor, papered the mirror wall with crude drawings of the opposite wall. Three Duets in the Form of a Pear, titled in dubious homage to Erik Satie, drew on both prior works, and they’ve pilfered it for appearances at downtown showcases like Dance Now.
What drives them? Chris says it’s ideas that are “totally ridiculous and silly, I think. And finding the beauty in that . . . and seeing how serious we can make any stupid thing . . . and also finding things that are not funny at all but become funny because of how they’re structured.” Justin seconds this (the two, who were wont to spend hours together in a cramped dorm room fast-forwarding through the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera to get to the juicy bits, tend to cap each other’s sentences). In their beguiling Species, they perform a skillful rhythmic dance mainly with their thumbs to music from Grieg’s Peer Gynt with paper bags over their heads. This, along with The Aorta Stomp and others, was featured on their recent duet evening at Galapagos, where they also premiered a fragmented “play” they’d been given by a friendly eccentric on the subway, written on receipts and matchbooks. At one moment, Chris had the tricky job of impersonating a “motorcycle coyote bear posing as a werewolf.”
The two became entrepreneurs early on, presenting installments of “The Chris & Justin Medicine Show,” featuring other choreographers and theater artists performing their own works. Some of these took place in a carpeted room at the Gershwin Hotel, with the hosts providing milk and cookies for spectators after the show. Although Jones is currently dancing with Tere O’Connor, and Yon is in Ireland working with Yoshiko Chuma, they’re preparing a “Medicine Show” for Symphony Space’s new “SideShow” series on May 29 and 30, having recruited, among others, Chuma, Gus Solomons jr, and David Neumann.
They got interested in narrative through friends in NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing. A rehearsal of Cowboy Loves His Mom is in itself a Chris-Justin number. Zach Steel—who, with Jeff Larson, devised some of the material and will perform the May dates—resorts to Method tactics to fine-tune the guys’ laconic, unemphatic style. When Justin (frustrated, dependent son) tilts away from Chris (mother) and blows out his cheeks like a fish, Steel asks Chris, “How do you feel about your son turning into a fish?” Chris thinks carefully. “I’m offended.”