In darkness, a live, punk-influenced sound score saturates a converted sixty-nine-seat black box theater in New York’s Lower East Side. The source: electric guitarist Chris Cochrane positioned upstage right.1 Upstage left, a spotlight illuminates two young male dancers from above. One sits in a chair and the other kneels, dressing bandages on the first dancer’s right knee. They wear cool-colored tank tops, loose-fitting khaki pants, and sneakers. Writer Dennis Cooper recites a text in an uninflected monotone alongside the dancers’ initial movements, cuing the piece’s sociopolitical implications:
I saw them once. I don’t know when, or who they were because they were too far away. But I remember things, like what they wore, which wasn’t anything special—pants, shirts, regular colors—stuff I’ve seen thousands of times since.
I wanted them to know something. I cupped my hands around my mouth and thought about yelling out. But they wouldn’t have heard me. Besides, I didn’t belong there.2
This opening scene sets the stage for Ishmael Houston-Jones’s THEM, an improvised composition at the intersection of physical risk and social exclusion. Conceived in 1985, THEM premiered at Performance Space 122 in 1986 at a moment when the AIDS epidemic was approaching its tipping point in U.S. public consciousness.3 The dance is a collaborative, multimedia work comprised primarily of a contact improvisation score danced by Houston-Jones, Donald Fleming, Daniel Macintosh, Julyen Hamilton, Barry Crooks, and David Zambrano. Contact improvisation is a movement vocabulary developed in the 1970s in which spontaneous points of physical contact between participants are the central composition element. It can be free form or take the shape of a score—a set of instructions or prompts that encourages structured yet open, fluid movement and exploration, the outcome of which is not predetermined. Contact improvisation scores can be simple or complex and often involve grazing, colliding, sharing weight, or other points of contact between participants.