CHICAGO — Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller and Ishmael Houston-Jones have been friends for a long time, since at least the early 1980s. But until a few days ago, these celebrated choreographers had never danced with one another in front of an audience. How had this not happened before? And will it happen again?
To wish for more is perhaps to miss out on the full beauty of “Relations,” a program lasting just two nights, Friday and Saturday, in which the artists came together to improvise at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Like any improvisational work, this one was about being there then, both for the performers and the audience — about making choices in the moment and watching that process unfold, as unpredictable and unrepeatable as life.
The program grew out of a conversation between the curator Tara Willis and Mr. Houston-Jones, a longtime improviser in New York’s experimental dance scene. In 1982 Mr. Houston-Jones organized Parallels, a groundbreaking series featuring black choreographers who, like him, were working outside of the modern-dance mainstream. Among those colleagues were Ms. Miller and Mr. Lemon.
Now in their 60s, the three are like family, or so it seemed on Saturday as they supported, teased, challenged, embraced, evaded and grappled with one another. (I didn’t see Friday’s show, but Mr. Lemon described it as the more “kumbaya” of the two.) Like most familial relationships, theirs were complicated, at least as they played out onstage, capable of holding affection and aggression, intimacy and distance, compassion and conflict, all at once.
And just as their shared histories were colliding, so were their varied sensibilities: Mr. Lemon’s careful stealth; Ms. Miller’s luxuriant abandon; Mr. Houston-Jones’s recklessness and dry humor. As Mr. Lemon noted during Saturday’s lively post-show discussion, “We’re being grouped because that’s racially what has happened, but we’re all really different body-minds.” (Of the three, he said, he was the least comfortable with improvising, reluctant to perform without a plan.)
Spending an hour with these artists felt at once ordinary and momentous. As the audience filed in, Mr. Houston-Jones sat alone in a corner, looking at his phone. His companions arrived with just as little fanfare. Also onstage: a record player and records; three wooden chairs; two plywood boards; and a standing microphone.
The performers could engage with these, or not, just as they could engage with one another, or not. Someone might put on a song (Grace Jones, Roland Hayes) and shake up the mood. When Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” came on, the first line rang comically true: “There’s something happening here.”
There were moments of tenderness: Mr. Lemon crawling as Ms. Miller leaned on him, releasing her weight into his back; Ms. Miller and Mr. Houston-Jones strolling side by side, as he bit into an apple and wryly observed, “This is biblical.”
At times darker energies took over. As the end neared, Mr. Houston-Jones worked himself into a violent frenzy. Ms. Miller came to his side, as if not to leave him stranded in pain, but he had already gone somewhere on his own. When, coming to, he noticed his shoe was untied, Mr. Lemon knelt to tie it, then reinforced the other. Through tension and turbulence, a basic care for one another never faltered.
Ms. Miller, Mr. Lemon and Mr. Houston-Jones have all been mentors to younger artists, many of whom were in the audience on Saturday. Even as “Relations” ended, it didn’t really, remaining alive in the bodies and minds of those who were there.