Noa Rui-Piin Weiss reflects on Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd (reprisal), 2023, co-directed by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Miguel Gutierrez, with music by Nick Hallett. John Bernd (1953-1988), was a choreographer, multi-hyphenate artist, and visionary who died of AIDS complications within the first years of the epidemic. In this essay, Weiss focuses on Bernd's memory, the reconstructions of his work within Variations...with insights into how this work resonates today—35 years after Bernd's passing and 7 years after Variations... first premiered at Danspace Project.
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The dancers stomp in and out of time, spread out in the church. Footfalls upon footfalls echo through the rafters. Some are recorded, archived vibrations played over speakers, others are being created in the moment.
It’s a simple dance—listening to a sound and syncopating to it—but this choreography carries the entire thesis of Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd. This is syncopation as memorial. Created around an existing body of work, Variations… does not seek to recreate the exact beats and movements of John’s choreography. Instead, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Miguel Gutierrez, and Nick Hallett reference the original source material, leaving it intact while adding sound and movement that complements it. They make a creative practice out of someone else’s creative practice: weaving a choreographic tapestry with built in gaps to let John’s creations shine through. This is the essence of syncopation, and of Variations… It’s not about copying, it’s about making holes.
This is the third iteration of Variations… (at Danspace): the piece premiered in 2016 as part of Danspace’s Lost and Found platform, and the second run was in 2018 as part of American Realness. The night I saw Variations…, Alvaro Gonzalez was unable to perform because he sustained an injury during the previous night’s show. The dance had been quickly reworked earlier in the day to account for the reduced cast, and there were no visible moments of absence—mostly, the dance felt complete without him. Not because he wasn’t an essential cast member, but because Variations… is about what’s not there. It’s a dance split among many figures including the void. You should watch the entire piece wondering who’s missing.
As dancers, we know what it’s like to carry someone else’s body inside our own. We are trained to resurrect, to absorb another person’s movement and pour it back out. We recreate gestures, flashes of someone else–someone who taught us, maybe someone who we’ve never even met. And we hold on to those pieces of other people for years, summoning them every time we recreate their movement. In this way, dancers are uniquely positioned to mourn.
Variations… has completely changed what it means to revive choreography. Or rather, it has crystallized the knowledge that performers hold and put into practice. There is no perfect version, no finalized performance set in stone to be repeated ad infinitum. It does not promise authenticity or accuracy. It’s a performance that gains integrity through relationships and research. The movement is a mix of improvisation and set choreography, but it all originates from footage and accounts of John’s work. Ishmael danced in some of John’s pieces, Miguel and Nick have studied John’s archive. All three are trained in the creative devices he used, and built their careers in the community that grew after John’s death. It’s a distinctively queer relationship to ancestry: Miguel describes it as “finding the people who made it possible for you to be here.”
Alvaro’s absence left a space in the show, so midway through the performance, Ishmael comes onstage for an improvised duet with Kris Lee. The entire audience leans forward. He pivots on one foot in his boot and history comes flooding back. I remember reading about Manifesto from Untitled Duet or Oo-Ga-La —written by Ishmael and Fred Holland—“We are Black…We will wear street clothes…We will wear heavy boots…We will fuck with flow.” There’s a familiar playfulness, a recognizable stop-and-go to the improv that yields spontaneous applause from the audience. It’s a joyful moment of the dance but I can’t help thinking about John. How he never knew what it was like to come on stage as an elder; to be recognized for his history.
It is clear that John was working within and contributing to a lineage that lives on long after his death. The leaps, slides, and rolls, taken directly from his choreography, are all familiar movements that float through the New York City dance scene to this day. Parts of the improvisation look so familiar it makes me wonder if we have ever been the authors of anything, or if we’ve all been making the same dance for decades. The minutiae of what happens on stage are simultaneously deeply important and wholly irrelevant. The material in Variations… is myriad in style and quality, and seeing all of it together unearths another truth: some dances are eternal, and some don’t hold up. It doesn’t actually matter.
At the top of the show, Ishmael retells the story of pitching this project in 2016, only to have Carol Mullins shoot it down. It would be absurd, she said, to re-stage John’s work without him because John was at the center of all of his pieces. Yet as his health deteriorated, his work began to incorporate more and more people. Many of those dancers ended up becoming his caretakers, and then the people who gathered his legacy after his death.
In Variations… you see John in triplicate, septuplicate, never alone. It’s a celebration of John and a destruction of the individual genius; what better way to honor an artist than to disseminate their work among many people. As the performers shake and sway and hold each other, I realize that I didn’t come to see a dance—I came to see the dance community. I came to remember the way we share time. To see the moment when a group of people make quick eye contact before leaping into a phrase together.
Near the end of the piece, a diagonal rectangle of light cuts the stage and Johnnie Cruise Mercer starts marking a phrase, the familiar pantomime of trying to make choreography. Immediately, I think of stories I read about John in the hospital, searching for a place to rehearse. As the dance materializes, it becomes clear that this section is referencing the end of his life—the time when he was sick and working and trying to never stop moving.
Scenes from John’s life unfold: bathing, dancing alone, sitting in a chair, making work, being in and out of the hospital, writing monologues about his lost loves and impending death. Each one performed by one or two of the dancers. Piece by piece the vignettes disappear until the last scene remains. Kris Lee sits shirtless with her back to the audience. Alex Rodabaugh wipes her down with a washcloth. Life gets stripped away from you, one small activity at a time, until the only thing left is the way others cared for you.
This marks one of many moments where John’s story takes on the larger narrative of the AIDS epidemic. I spent parts of 2020 and 2021 reading the diaries of another white gay man who died of complications related to AIDS: Lou Sullivan. In exposing the details of his life, he becomes all of us: the freaks, the masturbators, the unrequited lovers, the people just trying to finish their goddamn life’s work before their lives get taken away.
And when I say us, it’s not an “everyone” us. I mean the people who understand their desires as political. The ones who look at how their body has been politicized and say fuck it, I am a site of protest. John put his personal life into the public, and created works of performance that allow us, that specific us, to see ourselves in the past and future.
My favorite part of Variations… will always be the blender scene—it originated as a solo where John reckons with his illness  in a sardonic, heartbreaking piece of performance masquerading as a smoothie recipe. Following the theme of dissemination, the Variations… version features the entire cast circled around the blender. One by one, they add ingredients: Prednisone, Mylanta, vitamins, yogurt, leafy greens, a banana, a splash of beer, the word SCRAM written on a piece of paper. Each addition is more futile than the last: you watch knowing that the smoothie is not only comically disgusting, but also useless.
Once the smoothie is made, a pealing chant breaks out. When John was alone, it was a wild plea, part-internal monologue, part-prayer. In the archival video, John was performing a solo to an audience who was just as lost as he was. There was a chance that maybe, he would survive. Maybe, if he said the incantation and imbibed the formula he would find a way.
In the wake of his death, this chant takes on a different tragedy, and a different truth. In Variations…, there is an entire group of people screaming “what to do, what to do, what to do,” pressing their hands on the blender, speaking for all the people who are being killed by the government, who face their mortality to this day with nothing but the ghosts of those before them and what’s left in their kitchen cabinets.
Have you ever looked at someone you love knowing the State wants to kill them?
Maybe for you, as it is for me, it’s simply a matter of looking in the mirror.
We have only ever had each other, and whatever we could find in the fridge.