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Joseph Houseal  

dancer / reviewer (dance / performance) / choreographer U.S.A.

Two members of Parnassus Dance Theater, 1994.
Sharon Stern and Joseph Houseal.

Photo: Sonja van Kerkhoff.

See his website:

For seven years I lived in Kyoto, Japan studying and performing Noh dance-theatre, and this experience as well as the Bahá´í Teachings were influences in my life during the mid-eighties and early nineties. "Post-ballet" training, you might say. I was also influenced by many other aspects of our post-modern age and now work almost exclusively with endangered ancient dance forms, in particular of late, a project to record and preserve a threatened Buddhist dance form in Ladakh (adjacent to Tibet), as well as publishing articles and working on short art programs for televsion in Chicago where I currently live.

I had my first ballet lesson at the age of 15, while a robust teen athlete. My teacher was the 92 year old dance-pioneer Margaret Howard. Later I studied and danced with the Washington Ballet as a scholarship student for two seasons before being given a rare opportunity to perform with the New York City Ballet where I encountered the choreographer George Balanchine and shared the stage with Mikhail Baryshnikov, albeit well behind him in a pack of peasants. I stopped this because I didn't want to be the paint; I wanted to be the painter. Besides, I didn't see many 30 year old men I wanted to turn into. So at the age of twenty-two, I entered St John's College in Annapolis, celebrated for its four-year non-elective course in "The Great Books," graduating in 1985.

I had worked with some of the biggest names in the world of ballet and yet at this small college, a particular Jewish tutor, Chaninah Maschler, took me seriously, and in challenging my ideas, taught me to refine my thinking about art, choreography, meaning and spirituality. My choreographic debut was 'The Liberation Bearers', a section of Aeschylus' Oresteia, which was performed in Greek. The movement related to the rhythms of chanted poetry. Greek tragedy fascinated me as a form because it incorporates dance, poetry, drama and music into one unified aesthetic effect. The plays were written to be hollered, chanted, bellowed - and I felt I could understand them better by choreographing them myself than by merely reading them. But I found I ran into a dead-end because so few people know what Greek Tragedy really was, and no one knows what the movement was really like. I continued my work at the United States Naval Academy staging Gilbert and Sullivan with sailors, and while working on this a poet friend gave me some translations from the Noh theatre.

In 1985 I moved to Kyoto to study Noh and Kabuki, which has more flowing dance movements than the austere Noh. I also ran my own dance company: Parnassus Dancetheatre, which was a multi-cultural, interdisciplinary group incorporating dance forms from not only Asian and Western dance forms but also Arabian dance as well. It was a wealthy period for Japan, and we worked with traditional artists from 14 different countries in the seven years of productions. These were very entertaining and avant-garde.

Generally my approach is to begin with a traditional dance form and then to experiment from that. I feel we must preserve the great excellences of the world before we lose them

Katsura Kan (butoh dancer) and a Noh actor, Kamoi Eriko in Comic Itch (the actual Japanese title means: Birth Pangs of the Universe) produced by Joseph Houseal's company, Parnassus Dancetheater in 1989 in Kyoto, Japan. It involved over thirty performers from seven different countries.
and then incorporate these so that the changed context is new and relevant.
We had a lot of fun doing these shows in Kyoto.

The Japanese have a beautiful understanding: "To be an artist is to be enlightened." I don't think this means so much that all artists are enlightened as there aren't really so many true artists.

Some of our shows were: Mid-Hell Smoke, written by the poet Michael Fournier which was a type of Noh play based on Dante's Inferno. Dante referred to a hell of lovers and we used Japanese Butoh dancers and Classical ballerinas to represent the damned lovers blowing through hell like "dried leaves in a maelstrom." The show also included a Kyogen (Noh-style comedy) master, actors from four different countries, and members of the Osaka medival music ensemble, Danceries.

Fujima Kanso-o and Joseph Houseal performing in Good Manners.

Good Manners (1989), was a light hearted homage to the city of Kyoto centred on the story of an uneasy romance between Japan (symbolized by Fujima Kanso-o in traditional Japanese costume) and internationalization (performed by myself in 17th century European dress).

It was brocade-for-brocade. The centerpiece was a duet using dance elements from English Chamber Opera, Kabuki, and formula ballet to demonstrate our means for communication... or not.

Other performers wore architectural costumes personifying some of the most famous sites in Kyoto. So the set became the costumes.

We also spoke within our differing cultural languages so for example, I boasted to my new love, "I think therefore I am"

to which she responded "alone in my hut a single sound"

(an equally famous and misplaced phrase) and so on.

Beauty Bare (1989) was a ballet of forms about a search for beauty itself based on Greek ideals. The dance triptych titled: The Realm of Pure Forms, Paean to the Moon,

and The Curse of Knowledge

were interspersed with comic interludes that deliver the point of the play in words as well as movement.

Our most successful show was Cosmic Itch which involved over thirty performers from seven different countries. It was a smash.

Our last show, Going Up, created in Japan and performed in Germany in 1993, was about a mermaid who wanted to dance. We invented a Kabuki mermaid who gets to the city which is an urban chaos. Her dream comes true, when a hero, the collective spirit of all dancers, cuts off her tail and sets her free. The theme of the show was progress: how to keep the excellence of the old with the excitement of the new, and to realize that within everyone there is an evolving spirit that given the chance will start 'going up'.

Above and below: Comic Itch (the actual Japanese title means: Birth Pangs of the Universe) produced by Joseph Houseal's company, Parnassus Dancetheater in 1989 in Kyoto, Japan. It involved over thirty performers from seven different countries.

Comic Itch, performed by Parnassus Dancetheater in 1989.
Joseph Houseal is on the far right.

I moved to London in 1992 to do graduate research at the Laban Centre for Dance and Movement, and in that year choreographed New Hope for the Dead, another multi-media multi-art show involving a cast of 22 dancers, musicians, singers and computer technicians.
I then adapted several pieces from this show for just three dancers which toured Greece arranged by the Bahá´í arts manager, Helen Kontos.

After that tour in the summer of 1993, I then created a solo piece for the celebration of the Birthday of Bahá'u'lláh. It was written by Carolyn Sparey-Gillies, principal violinist with the Scottish BBC Symphony, and performed at the Royal Academy in Glasgow. She said that the piece was about the path of all religions to unity, or the individual's journey to Bahá'u'lláh. She played viola while I danced. It was as intense and skillful as Carolyn was. What a pleasurable collaboration!

Also in 1993, I helped design the Bahá´í Summer Performing Arts Academy where I was the dance tutor. It was a great success on many levels, but perhaps not in the area of artistic excellence. At that time, a dummied-down version of the purpose of art was prevalent, and it caused tension. There was no question where I stood. God might love you if you rationalize lower standards with religion, but trust me, a good dance teacher won't.

In 1995 I attended the Arts Forum in Landegg Academy in Switzerland. I had been feeling sicker and weaker and only my delightful young dance partner Caroline Barden knew how bad it was because I couldn't lift her. Our performances went well, but it was a candlelit Noh dance late at night where it was art that kept me alive. I was masked, in kimono, and the dance was very long and slow and abstract. I wasn't there in body. No one had a clue what it meant. It was the ancient forms and the spirit of the gathered artists who bore my soul though what was one of the finest performances in my life. The same year, I wrote a book, Art and Spirit, Useful Clues inspired by aesthetic teachings of the orient as well as those gleaned in Bahá´í writings.

I worked as Chaka Khan's artistic director from 1993 until 1996. Then I moved back to the States and am currently based in Chicago.

I am grateful for it all: to be a dancer, an artist; to be gay, to have this sensibility for the ancient and to desire truth. I neither chose nor earned any of these. They are simply characteristics of my existence, as natural as a tree or a star. Wholeness for me means unifying these within myself in order to produce things outside of myself reflecting this given essence.

Once I Was a Willow performed on the 1997 Summer Solstice under a full moon at midnight by torchlight at the DeMenil estate on East Hampton, Long Island. Choreographed and performed by Joseph Houseal.

A solo dance incorporating Noh, Kabuki and 'martial modern' elements. Issey Miyake made the costume. The vest is made of Noh kimono brocade and had threads of bronze in it.

Once I Was a Willow was inpired by the legendary Japanese poetess of antiquity, Komachi, and her response to a couple young monks who challenged her understanding of transience. She lived to be 100, half-mad, half-enlightened. Her response was

Like a root-cut reed
should the tide entice,
I would go, I think.
But now no stream asks,
no tide beckons.
Once I was a willow.

See these websites for his latest projects as well as links to articles:

image to come -
Dance in Ladakh, Himalayan India, 2000, photograph by Joseph Houseal.
“Although the musical accompaniment is largely with rhythm instruments, drums and cymbals as well as enormous horns, the musicians play cued by the solo and collective motions of the dancers. The dancers are guided by natural pulsations and the instructions the dancers follow as they execute steps are as such: "Ride like a piece of paper on a crashing wave" "Walk gracefully like a tiger through the forest" "Fly like a Garuda, a mythical bird-beast" "Move the head like a lion shaking a human victim in its mouth"

Excerpt from Joseph Houseal's article The Vanishing Dances of Ladakh.

  • Photograph: Dance in Ladakh, Arts Dialogue, November 2002
  • Illustration: performing: Once I was a willow, 1997, Arts Dialogue, June 2000
  • Review: The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Arts Dialogue, March 1998
  • Article: Ballet and Butoh -when forces unite, Arts Dialogue, March 1997
  • Artist Profile: BAFA newsletter, September 1994
  • Letter: Arts Foundation, BAFA newsletter, September 1994
  • Photos of: Parnssus Dance/Theater in Japan 1989 and in London 1994 in BAFA newsletter, June 1994
  • Article: Unleashing our art, BAFA newsletter, September 1993

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