ADF performance all about the love songs

Jun. 23, 2014 @ 03:59 PM

There’ll be some cigarette-smoking, eating, knife display, singing – and, oh yes, dancing, when Ishmael Houston-Jones & Emily Wexler make their American Dance Festival debuts in their duet, “13 Love Songs: dot, dot, dot.”
They perform at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at Durham Art Council’s PSI Theater.
Although separated in age by three decades – he’s in his 60s, she’s in her 30s – they discovered a common ground when they started talking about heartbreak. They also agree that pop love songs are corrosive.
“These songs set up fantasies of what love is. People feel disappointed when they don’t reach that ideal,” Houston-Jones said in a recent telephone interview.
In their duet, they include Aretha Franklin’s “I’m in Love,” in which she sings this declaration over and over. “We subvert that by crying over and over,” he added.
During another happy love song, they also respond differently. “What we do is not happy. It becomes dark very quickly,” Emily Wexler said. “There’s a discrepancy between the glee, the ecstasy that happens when you fall in love and the violence otherwise.”
As for these dancers’ attitude to the other songs they chose for the duet, he said, “It veers between ironic, cynical to 100 percent sincere.”
Their soundtrack includes rock ’n’ roll, soul, hip-hop, an Irish folk song and even Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 2.”  “The Satie is very romantic and is the only time in the duet we physically touch each other,” he added.
They also selected some tracks from the Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs,” because the songs had been important to both of them in past relationships. “I’m haunted by the relationship,” Wexler said of a 10-year involvement with a boyfriend.
Both admit they’ve had trouble letting go of these feelings.
As research for this dance, both re-read old, hand-written journals and shared these to each other. “We were seeing how much had changed and how much had not changed,” he said.
Wexler, who started keeping a journal in second grade, got to “relive” her obsession with the same boy from second to 10th grade; this person never became her boyfriend.
The journals also reminded them of how much certain music plays a role in relationships – that there’s literally a soundtrack. “Music marks a particular time in our lives,” he said.
“I have songs that still speak to me because of who I was at a certain age and my hopes then,” Wexler said.
Their own such experiences with this music could explain, in part, audience responses to their duet at the New York premiere in January. “Some cried in certain sections. There was laughter,” he said.
While the dancers’ own relationship is not romantic, their love for each other has deepened. “Our relationship is similar to the ways you love any friend,” Wexler said.  “The longer we knew each other has made us closer.”
They had to put their rehearsals on hold early last year when Houston-Jones had a heart attack in early February; Wexler became his primary caregiver for three weeks after his quadruple bypass surgery.
His recovery went well and he returned to ADF last summer to teach improvisation, which he’s also teaching this summer.
He had been teaching at ADF in 2005 when he and Wexler first met. She was a receptionist and, since the best Wi-Fi reception had been near her desk, he spent a lot of time there and they started talking. “We had the same thoughts and critical responses to dances we were seeing,” she said.  For a dance he was performing at the Faculty Concert, he asked her if he could borrow some of her skirts and dresses. She doesn’t recall how he used these clothes. “I was so honored because he was famous.”
Houston-Jones’ credits include two New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Awards.
There’s one more thing Wexler wanted audiences to know about their show. There’s an “extra.” After choosing the 13 love songs for their duet, it seems they had other favorites. “We made a play list for each other of our favorite love songs that did not make the show. We play those songs after the performance,” she said.

WHAT: The American Dance Festival presents Ishmael Houston-Jones & Emily Wexler in “13 Love Songs: dot, dot, dot”.
WHEN: 7 p.m. and 9 pm. Tuesday and Wednesday.
WHERE: Durham Art Council’s PSI Theater.
TICKETS: 919-684-4444 or