Ishmael Houston-Jones is a remarkable artist committed to the themes of social justice and personal witness that are the bedrock of black dance in America, yet he boldly embraces the conceptual and technical innovations of late-’80s postmodernism.

At Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions on Thursday, the New York-based improvisational performer danced out alternately fearful and angry responses to the racist and militarist lyrics of country ditties (“f/i/s/s/i/o/n/i/n/g”), naked except for his high-topped shoes, red and white socks--and a black kerchief-mask (with a caricature grin) across his face.

In “Dead,” he read (on tape) the names of all the people he could remember who had died in his lifetime, accompanying this litany with sudden spiraling falls, painful shifts of position on the floor and weary rises to begin the cycle anew. Sometimes flickers of expressive motion suggested the person named; elsewhere mere submission to process became a nonliteral yet intense dance-drama.


“Relatives” began with Houston-Jones literally dancing in the dark, his actions defined essentially through the audience’s sense of smell: What sounded like rocks being rolled on the floor proved, unmistakably, to be mothballs.

Soon after this quirky perceptual gambit, he carried his mother, Pauline Jones, onto the stage. While she dyed eggs and spoke about her family history, he improvised a rhythmic dance-counterpoint to her speech.

Among its other achievements, this unassuming duet brilliantly objectified many of the conditions for any successful relationship: accommodating oneself to the other person’s rhythms, allowing that person private space, accepting eccentricities and digressions.

Houston-Jones and his mom obviously feel that family continuity is something to talk about-- and dance about. What a heartening and unexpected Christmas message from the New York avant-garde.

Final performance tonight at 8.