Theaters

Remembering and Reframing the Legacy of a Choreographer Lost to AIDS

A new dance work based on material by the choreographer John Bernd, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1988 at age 35, is the centerpiece of Danspace Project’s annual Platform series.

John Bernd, 1980s, by Dona Ann Macadams, (courtesy of John Bernd Archives)
John Bernd, 1980s, by Dona Ann Macadams, (courtesy of John Bernd Archives)

The value of the human potential lost to AIDS is incalculable. In the arts alone, how many careers and visions — the work of dancers, painters, playwrights, musicians, friends, lovers, colleagues, and mentors — were taken from the world? How do we remember these people, and what lessons can we draw from this great loss?

These are the questions inspired by the performances and events that make up Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found. The annual Platform series brings together numerous dance and performing artists. This year’s series sees over 80 performers, writers, and artists — including Bill T. Jones, Neil Greenberg, Archie Burnett, Hilton Als, and Eva Yaa Asantewaa, to name only a few — coming together in programs that include dance performances, readings, and discussions.

Ensuring that the impact of AIDS on the arts community is not forgotten drives the curatorial mission of this year’s series, curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls. This weekend is the fourth in the series, and last night’s program was, in one way, its centerpiece. The evening saw the premiere of a 66-minute dance work, Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, which interprets some of the works of choreographer John Bernd, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1988, at the age of 35.

John Bernd, 1980s, by Don Chiappinelli (courtesy of John Bernd Archives)
John Bernd, 1980s, by Don Chiappinelli (courtesy of John Bernd Archives)

Bernd, as a young dancer, was in the center of the downtown dance scene of the 1980s, but his name and works have been all but lost to history. According to Lucy Sexton’s recollection in a 1998 zine reprinted in the Platform catalogue, Bernd worked as the caretaker at PS 122 to support his creative endeavors and he was one of the first choreographers to combine dancing with text, singing, and storytelling in his performances. His wide range of work — some of which is archived in the New York Public Library’s dance division — included solo dance and group choreography, often featuring his black-and-white drawings, monologues, and original music. His Lost and Found, Scenes from a Life, commissioned by Dance Theater Workshop for the 1983–84 season, is a dance piece with singing whose ambience recalls the more somber moments of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. (The work was first performed by Bernd, Chris Burnside, Ishmael Houston-Jones, David Allan Harris, and Joseph Pupello.) Bernd’s solo, Surviving Love and Death, combines monologue, an easy-spirited modern dance vocabulary, and a wide-spaced heavy tap dancing that resembles clogging. The work suggests a young, creative man just discovering all his options.

Platform 2016 co-curator Houston-Jones danced in three of Bernd’s works, as he told the audience at Thursday night’s performance of Variations on a Theme. Three years ago, he explained, he rediscovered the zine that he and others who knew Bernd had put together to mark the tenth anniversary of the artist’s death. That zine, along with conversations with Danspace Project’s Chief Curator, Judy Hussie-Taylor, inspired Houston-Jones to bring Bernd’s work to a new generation of dance artists. It’s a generation that, in Houston-Jones’s estimation, might not understand what it was like to live through a time in which a generation of creative artists simply disappeared.

Talya Epstein, Alvaro Gonzalez, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Alex Rodabaugh, Tony Carlson, Madison Krekel, and Charles Gowin in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, Danspace Project (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Danspace Project)
Left to right: Talya Epstein, Alvaro Gonzalez, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Alex Rodabaugh, Tony Carlson, Madison Krekel, and Charles Gowin in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, Danspace Project (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Danspace Project)

For Variations on a Theme, Houston-Jones asked the choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, who had never seen Bernd’s work before, to put the Bernd dance material together into a new work. Gutierrez chose dances Bernd made between 1982 and 1988. The result, said Gutierrez, was a work that is “not exactly John” — nor Houston-Jones, nor Gutierrez.

Variations on a Theme is for five men and two women. They enter the dance space at St. Mark’s wearing BVDs (and tank tops for the women) and make eye contact with members of the audience. Tops and pants come later, but in this opening sequence the dancers are showing us their practically bare bodies. Healthy bodies? How would we know?

Left to right: Talya Epstein, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Charles Gowin, Alvaro Gonzalez, Madison Krekel, Alex Rodabaugh, and Tony Carlson in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, Danspace Project (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Danspace Project)
Left to right: Talya Epstein, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Charles Gowin, Alvaro Gonzalez, Madison Krekel, Alex Rodabaugh, and Tony Carlson in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, Danspace Project (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Danspace Project)

Structurally, Variations on a Theme most closely resembles the DTW work mentioned above, Lost and Found. Much of that dance’s movement vocabulary is retained, as well as some of the gestural motifs and dramatic sequences. Bernd’s monologue from Lost and Found, Scenes from a Life (part II) is also included. The writing, with its fluid maneuvering between conversation and introspection, closeness and space, suggests Bernd had much to offer the world as a writer. (This material, as well as the zine, is reprinted in the catalogue for Platform 2016.)

The new dance is certainly a hybrid, and it likely suits the performers better this way. They seem most at ease in the piece’s zanier moments — running around like chickens or aping fellatio to the tune of “Hoe Down” from Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo in a sequence that seems pure Gutierrez.

Left to right: Alex Rodabaugh, Charles Gowin, Talya Epstein, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Alvaro Gonzalez, Tony Carlson, and Madison Krekel in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, Danspace Project (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Danspace Project)
Left to right: Alex Rodabaugh, Charles Gowin, Talya Epstein, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Alvaro Gonzalez, Tony Carlson, and Madison Krekel in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, Danspace Project (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Danspace Project)

The work isn’t about AIDS, per se, but AIDS was a character in some of Bernd’s work and so illness naturally appears in this new piece. I write illness, because dance can only handle generalizations. (George Balanchine famously quipped that there are no mothers-in-law in ballet.) When three of the performers shudder and sink in on themselves near the end of the piece, it’s implied their personas are suffering, their bodies failing. Of course, allowing the dancers to vocalize gets around this problem. Indeed, some of Bernd’s monologues included text spoken by a doctor about the HIV virus. But this didn’t make it into Variations on a Theme, whose weak point is a comic sequence in which the dancers blend a disease-busting prednisone smoothie. (“I’ve decided to take control of my disease!” says one of them as they wheel into center stage.) The seven dancers are dancers after all, and this sequence is too much to ask of them.

We still have much to learn about the disease, which continues to disrupt and destroy lives. Only last week a study published in the journal Nature revealed that the disease arrived in New York City from Haiti in 1970 or 1971. The rate of infection doubled every year, and yet the disease went undetected by doctors for a decade. Putting that in a dance is difficult work, and it’s a good thing we have choreographers willing to try.

Left to right: Charles Gowin, Johnnie Cruise Mercer (leaping), Alex Rodabaugh, Talya Epstein, Madison Krekel, and Alvaro Gonzalez in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, Danspace Project (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Danspace Project)
Left to right: Charles Gowin, Johnnie Cruise Mercer (leaping), Alex Rodabaugh, Talya Epstein, Madison Krekel, and Alvaro Gonzalez in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, Danspace Project (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Danspace Project)

Performances of Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd continue at St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery (131 East 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through November 5. Danspace Project’s Platform 2016 series continues through November 19.

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