Variations On Themes From Lost And Found: Scenes From A Life And Other Works By John Bernd (Reprisal)
May 25–27, June 1–3, 2023
Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd was originally conceived and performed as part of Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found. Its 2023 reprisal continues to explore and recover the legacies of a generation of artists lost from AIDS complications, centering the choreography and writing of John Bernd, a performance artist active in New York City’s downtown dance scene during the 1980s. Bernd’s piece Surviving Love and Death, performed at Performance Space 122 in 1981, is one of the earliest performance works to address HIV/AIDS, before it even had a name. Co-directed by Miguel Gutierrez and Ishmael Houston-Jones, a friend, collaborator, and caregiver of John Bernd’s, Variations collages and reshapes his body of work, carrying its spirit into the present.
Elinor Krichmar (Rail): How did it feel to revisit the material for Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd in 2023 versus in 2016? Did a different part catch your eye this time? Were there any major or minor revisions?
Ishmael Houston-Jones: Miguel and I did not propose a reprisal, and we were both hesitant. Miguel was in grad school and teaching at UCLA, and also had two other pieces here in New York this spring. So we were both kind of like, “Why?” But Judy Hussie-Taylor, the Executive Director of Danspace, convinced us.
Five of the seven people from the original cast could participate, and two couldn’t. So we had to audition people, and the audition process was really, really interesting. I’m very glad that the two new people joined. That was a big difference.
In terms of how I view the piece, it’s always interesting coming back to work. In 2016, the COVID pandemic had not yet happened, and I think now that context has resonance, for Miguel and me and the cast, and also for audiences watching it. And this time the performers were five years older than the last time they’d performed the piece, which I think brought more depth to the performance—there was a huge amount of growth. The piece felt better and better as we worked on it, and because we had to work Raha Behnam and Kris Lee into the piece, we had to really revisit the original videotapes. I think I had a better idea of what was going on and how it all related this time around.
Rail: You’ve referenced John Bernd as a co-author of Variations. What does it mean to collaborate across time with someone who is no longer with us?
Houston-Jones: We wanted to honor the work’s original source, but also acknowledge that we were altering and manipulating it. John’s work is at the center of the piece—his choreography, his imagery, his words. But we radically changed a lot of his choreography.
We didn’t want to make the memorial piece. We wanted to have the works speak to 2023 or 2016, when we first made it, so we want it to be not only about John and his illness, but about the impact that AIDS had on the dance community today.
Rail: What makes it not a memorial piece?
Houston Jones: Miguel and I gave ourselves permission to say, “John’s choreography is a source, but it’s not going to be set in stone.” We can alter it; we can expand and contract it. Multiplying roles was really important. There are very few instances in the piece where there’s one person playing John. It only happens at the end, when there are several different scenes and phrases going on simultaneously. Johnnie Cruise-Mercer is doing this one dance that John did. But also Alvaro Gonzalez is washing Kris’s back, which is what John did with Jennifer Monson in his last piece, Two on the Loose. And Toni Carlson is delivering a monologue from one of John’s other pieces. Throughout Variations there is never one representation of John, or one person playing John.
Rail: They’re all simultaneously John and not John.
Houston-Jones: Yes, John and not John.
Rail: What do you think you would have thought and felt in the aftermath of John’s death—or maybe a decade later when you made the zine1—about revisiting John’s work?
Houston-Jones: Wow, I’ve never been asked that. In 1998, when we put the zine together, it definitely was a memorial. Ten years after John died, we were still in shock. For the fifteen or so of us that were involved in taking care of John toward the last years of his life, it was a catalyst. For most of us, if not all of us, John was the first person we knew personally who passed away from AIDS complications. Ten years after he died, we wrote things specifically for the zine and gathered John’s drawings and postcards and photographs. Sort of like the Jewish idea of a yahrzeit. Time has passed, so we can start to deal with this now. The zine felt like putting a period to that part of my life, and that time. Also, by then, the drug cocktails had been introduced, so AIDS wasn’t immediately a death sentence. I don’t think I would have conceived of doing anything like Variations, or that I would have revisited the work so intensely years later.
When I found the zine decades later in my apartment, I’d almost forgotten that it existed. I mentioned it to Judy, and we began talking, not about John so much, because she didn’t know him, but wondering, what did those deaths mean? So many people from a particular community dying really early… what effect did those deaths have on work that was being made, and that is currently being made? Those questions prompted the Danspace Platform that Will Rawls and I curated in 2016.
Rail: I’m keen to know more about the collaboration process with the cast. What did it feel like for you, as the only person who knew John personally, who had performed and collaborated with him? How did you bring that to your new cast?
Houston-Jones: We put the piece together incredibly fast. I like working fast as a choreographer; I tend to get bored with my own work easily. We put this together in about six weeks in 2016. We had a residency upstate; it was great to get out of the city. We showed the original videos to the cast every day and had photocopies of John’s writings—he was a prolific journal writer. So the cast read those, and I talked about what the work meant at that time, and how the pieces we chose to revisit were a progression through John’s illness, from Surviving Love and Death in ’81 to Two on the Loose in ’88. And, you know, we played charades and Pictionary and stuff at night, we cooked for each other. It was a week of bonding with each other and bonding over the material.
Rail: When you were describing John’s work to the cast of Variations, did you feel closer to them? Or did it make you feel further away?
Houston-Jones: Oh, that’s interesting. I think closer. I was in a teacher role, an elder role. I think people were sensitive to the fact that I was very emotionally invested in the work, but also a little bit removed. One of the reasons I asked Miguel to help originally was to put the choreography together, since I don’t really do that. [Laughs]
Rail: Until this project?
Houston-Jones: I actually did very little of that this time. Miguel did most of the logistics of putting the piece together. I talked about the ideas, and spacing and things, but the actual movement, translating the movement from the videos to the current dancers was mostly Miguel. That was also an emotional buffer for me. I had the space to go off and just be sad.
Rail: Right, you didn’t have to independently balance the responsibility of managing a whole show and revisiting a very intense and emotional time.
Houston-Jones: Right. And there were emotional moments. It’s funny, the duet I wound up doing with Kris was based on an improvisation I did with Yvonne Meier in the eighties, in Lost and Found Part 3 I think, in ’85 or so. John wasn’t going to do it because he was in the hospital at the time. Fred Holland was going to do it instead. John had been giving us prompts over the phone from the hospital. Then he got out of the hospital six days before the show. And we said “Oh, you should do it, John.” With this spirit of like “Yeah, you can do it.” And he did.
One day we were at St. Mark’s Church rehearsing. I guess when John had just gotten out of the hospital. He had a skin condition, really bad psoriasis, and he was just screaming in the bathroom. We were stunned. We couldn’t do anything. He was literally screaming at the top of his lungs. Memories like that would come back when I was watching the videos of John.
Rail: And I’m sure memories like that were brought back into your body along with the movement.
Houston-Jones: Yeah. And brought the response back into the body. The blender scene is really funny, because it’s from Surviving Love and Death, from before AIDS had a name. It was 1981, HIV/AIDS had not been identified.
Rail: Was it called GRID2 at that time?
Houston-Jones: He wasn’t even identified as having GRID. Something was just wrong. His platelets weren’t coagulating or clotting.
There’s a wryness. John had this dark sense of humor when he was doing the blender scene. Some people have said that the new cast is making it too comic. But it was actually kind of funny then.
Rail: I did find it funny when I watched the recording of John.
Houston-Jones: Yeah. I was in the audience, and I can actually hear myself laughing in the recording. Forty years later I have the same laugh.
Rail: You’ve mentioned that the blender scene was very challenging for you to translate into the variation. What made it so difficult?
Houston-Jones: That’s the one I’m most self-critical about. I have the memory of seeing him do it, and even in the horrible quality of the VHS video that you saw, it’s amazing. I just feel like in Variations it doesn’t quite get that power. I think I’m just really attached to my memory of John doing it, and to the video of John. I feel that version is much more powerful than the cast of seven distributing the role. I think it’s successful and the cast does it really well, but I still feel a sense of not being satisfied.
Rail: That scene is so interesting. I know it was extremely affecting when John performed it as well. But in the context of 2023, spreading the role into seven people makes sense to me. John didn’t even have a name for what was going on with his body in 1981. He wasn’t alone with it of course, but I can’t imagine how isolating that must have felt. Now there’s more of a sense of community and power among people who are HIV-positive, even just from the basis of having a name under which to unite.
Houston-Jones: I think that’s true. I tend to be self-critical anyway.
A lot of the blender scene is actually about John’s breakup with Tim Miller3. That’s why it’s called Surviving Love and Death. It’s about this disease that doesn’t have a name—but it’s also about his breakup with this person.
Rail: Was Tim at all involved in the care schedule for John when he was sick?
Houston-Jones: He wasn’t really involved. I mean, they didn’t get along.
Rail: I can imagine that going through something as traumatic as the AIDS crisis could bring up a great deal of interpersonal static and conflict, even or especially with people you love.
Houston-Jones: It was a very complicated time. We knew so little. There were weird things like, “should we drink out of the same glass?”
Rail: I’m sure there was tons of misinformation too. Did you feel limited in terms of physical contact while dancing? Worried about interacting with other peoples’ sweat?
Houston-Jones: Oh, yeah. Guidelines were being modified all the time. And Anthony Fauci was a presence for that—it was the first time anybody heard about him. It’s so weird that he has had this reemergence but like forty years later.
I remember one time four of us were at a restaurant. John intentionally drank out of someone else’s glass, and I could see that he was testing us. I mean, there were things fucked up about him as well. He wasn’t a saint. I saw him do it, just to see what they would do.
Rail: What did they do?
Houston-Jones: I think they just didn’t drink out of the glass anymore. It was one of those silent things. If you read Johnny Walker’s contribution in the zine, you can see John was always testing him.
I came to this realization, probably in 2016 while watching the tapes of John. It hit me that John often portrayed himself as the healer, both in the original shaking scene, when David Alan Harris is shaking and John is singing to him and touching him, and in his final piece with Jennifer Monson, Two on the Loose, he’s the one washing her back. That was a role he really felt connected to.
Rail: Throughout the period when he was sick, John was surrounded and cared for by his community. I’m sure, in a way, he was also taking care of you all.
Houston-Jones: It was a really challenging time. And we were all like, late-twenties, early-thirties, we didn’t know what we were doing. Not just because of the illness, but also dealing with John. Lucy Sexton in her essay for the zine comments that he weighed like one hundred pounds, and he was still calling people trying to plan his next tour. When he got the case made for the chair it was like this great denial. He would deny the fact that he even had AIDS.
Rail: The red chair is obviously a very important presence in these pieces and John’s work. Do you know what the significance of the chair was to John?
Houston-Jones: Absolutely not. It was just his signature. It was always in his pieces—every single piece from ‘81 on—but he never really spoke about it. I don’t know anything about the color; I don’t know why it was red.
Rail: When I was watching the footage of John, I felt that the chair served an important purpose as a tangible object. It’s not ephemeral, like dance, or like John, but something that would outlive him, and endure in a way that he knew that he wouldn’t. What do you think of that interpretation?
Houston-Jones: It’s possible. And just a side note to that—we’re trying to figure out what to do with the chair and where it should go. The Library for the Performing Arts or the Fales Library at NYU. I don’t want to take it up to Harvard, but that’s where most of his papers are.
Rail: It should stay in New York.
Houston-Jones: Yeah. I think so. It’s great that we had it. And it was really important to have the case there too, at the beginning. He actually did those drawings and wrote his address on it. So yeah, it is this tangible thing. And also, not to be morbid, it looks like a coffin.
Rail: By bringing work from the 1980s to 2016 to now, and for you to be in all those renditions, Variations functions as a disruption of linear time. In the introduction to the Lost and Found catalogue, you mentioned thinking critically about who gets archived. John is, as a young, white, gay man, an archetype of HIV/AIDS. I’m thinking about how archives help craft memories. And I want to ask you about the purpose of archives—is part of their purpose to disrupt linear time?
Houston-Jones: We were very fortunate that John was so prolific. He was also a writer; we had legal pads full of his scribbles. And we are fortunate that this woman, Maryette Charlton, got the work to Harvard and preserved it. I never knew exactly who she was—I knew she was Kirk Winslow’s mother, who was an artist and photographer and I think sometimes boyfriend to John. She would come to all of our shows downtown.
Orlando Zane Hunter, Jr. from Brother(hood) Dance! brought up that there are a lot of people whose work doesn’t get archived. Like Ed Mock, who was on the West Coast and doing a lot of work adjacent to John’s. When I was writing the catalogue, I didn’t know about Ed Mock, and I’m an African American, gay man. I didn’t know about this person because I’m very New York-centric, but also his work did not get archived. And whose work does get archived is always a question.
Rail: Where do you see Variations on Themes in Lost and Found fitting into a wider archive of art about HIV/AIDS?
Houston-Jones: I think it’s an important document. But it’s not a documentary; it’s an artwork of a specific person. And it’s a response forty years after the fact. That’s how I really see it. It isn’t like the work that was being made then.
Rail: A central topic explored in Variations is absence and its aftermath. There’s the question of how art and dance in the present would be different if we hadn’t lost so many ancestors, like John.
Houston-Jones: I think this points to my curatorial philosophy of starting with impossible, unanswerable questions. I brought in a lot of different younger people, like Brother(hood) Dance! and Kia LaBeija.
Rail: Does the intergenerational nature of this piece begin to address this question of how to respond to what could have been?
Houston-Jones: Yeah. Everything would have been different. John’s work would have been different and probably wouldn’t have turned into what Miguel and I did. John was onto things. He was doing things that are sort of commonplace now, like adding pop music, text, and projected images. That was pretty unusual in dance pieces at the time.
Rail: During Conversations Without Walls at Danspace, Miguel brought up the image of a family tree, of you and him and John and the cast all being connected by a family tree. And I know Miguel said he felt a real connection with John and his work, and really felt his presence as a dance ancestor.
Houston-Jones: Miguel didn’t know John, but he’d received John’s knowledge, aesthetic, and spirit through people he had worked with who had also worked with John.
Rail: And now, Variations will also be generative and inspirational, too. To younger people who are more distant from John and from that period of the AIDS crisis, John’s legacy—and the legacy of so many others—is being continued through their art.
Houston-Jones: Oh, definitely. And there are survivors also, from that time, like myself! I joke that my titles in the eighties were laughable. I had a piece called DEAD, and The Undead, and Prologue to the End of Everything and Without Hope.
Rail: That does feel appropriate. And you were making work throughout this whole time?
Houston-Jones: Yeah. And it affected me. The piece Without Hope—I haven’t done it in a long time. I probably couldn’t do it now. I do a contact improvisation with a cinderblock and wind up bleeding. That was actually about John: I speak about him. It starts off with a cataloging of Frida Kahlo’s injuries from the trolley accident, and then connects that to her painting called Without Hope (1945) and to John’s feeding tube. Because Frida in the painting is being force fed through a funnel.
Rail: That connects to the blender too. The funnel. It’s a similar image.
Do you feel like there are differences in the way that the audience is engaging with or responding to the work in 2016 versus now, versus in the eighties?
Houston-Jones: John was very vocal in his work in the eighties, especially once AIDS was confirmed. He was the poster in our community of a person with AIDS. And watching his decline through the pieces is really interesting. His physicality changes from Surviving Love and Death—he’s healthy looking. And by Two on the Loose he’s doing some of the same movement, but he was really rickety. In the eighties, AIDS was so present. We were watching people die, while still making relevant work. John did Two on the Loose probably six months before he died.
Rail: Even though now, in 2023, we are seven years farther from the eighties than in 2016, it feels like we’re a little bit closer to the original source.
Houston-Jones: It totally feels that way.
Rail: When I interviewed you for my undergraduate thesis back in 2020, I believe you said that no one has asked you about HIV/AIDS and dance in a long time. I think you expressed at that time that it didn’t really seem to be on people’s radars. Do you feel like that’s still the case?
Houston-Jones: I think COVID brought HIV/AIDS back into people’s focus, because in a lot of ways they’re really familiar. I think now there’s an awareness of HIV/AIDS, people are revisiting through different media, like writing and film. I think in 2016 there was a growing awareness, and the current pandemic fueled that.
And I think actually Platform 2016 also reinvigorated curiosity and awareness. It’ll be interesting to see how twenty years from now, when I’m no longer around, what the memory will be then.
- Houston-Jones created a collaborative zine in August 1998, in his words, “to commemorate the ten years since John Bernd had died at age 35” (Lost & Found catalogue, Danspace, 2016).
- Altman, Lawrence K. 1982. “NEW HOMOSEXUAL DISORDER WORRIES HEALTH OFFICIALS.” The New York Times, May 11, 1982.
- Tim Miller is a performance artist with whom John collaborated on Live Boys, a piece that chronicled their romantic and artistic relationship.