writers on dancing


Bill T. Jones: Raising the Curtain
with Provocative Results

"As I Was Saying"
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
Thursday, November 17; Saturday, November 19, 2005

by Lisa Traiger
copyright 2005 Lisa Traiger

In "As I Was Saying …" Bill T. Jones picks up where he left off with his 1999-2000 "The Breathing Show." Sort of. For while Jones's artistic project over his nearly quarter century career has been as a dancemaking provocateur challenging audiences, get them to shift in their seats and hash out highly incendiary issues over intermission wine coolers, Jones is also somewhat of a traditionalist—a formalist as he has famously called himself on the heels of his 1994 "victim art" controversy at the pen of dance critic Arlene Croce.

But Jones has always been interested in form as much as content, and in "As I Was Saying…An Evening of Dance, Text and Music with Bill T. Jones and Friends," the two wrestled with one another as Jones, unimaginably fit and dancing with his trademark liquid fluidity, seemed to quietly, yet ever so insouciantly, smirk at the challenges he was laying out for his audience.

His opening gambit, "With the Good Lord," uses two monologues by Jazz poet Lord Buckley "To Swing or Not to Swing" and "The Nazz," a hard-to-decipher reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Jones plays, in his mustard-colored cutaway, mimicking Buckley's melodious wordplay, he nimbly manipulates his arms, from wrist to elbow to shoulder, like coils of unfurling hose. His cockeyed poses, knee bent, foot presented, recall the old-time tap masters and even a hint of Master Juba, tap's first star, the "dancingest fellow ever was. Rangy Leah Cox and smooth Donald C. Shorter, Jr. join Jones and the threesome each inhale a spliff, an imaginary joint Jones offers up. He's at play, too, with the colorful and somewhat shady and seedy jazz world of the 1950s, and that may be as much about the commissioning money—the Doris Duke Fund of Jazz and Dance—as Jones's choreographic intentions. But "Good Lord" features lovely moments: the opening when Jones appears in silhouette, trim and muscular framed in a doorway, which eventually opens up to a spacious field for the trio to meander through, before leaving Jones again alone. And Robert Wierzel's exquisite lighting, that opens and consumes space as necessary throughout the evening, frequently becomes a partner for Jones and serves a unifying function in his pastiche of works.

For "Do You Be" Jones dances a duet with himself on an exquisite video by Janet Wong that finds ways to capture ghostly images. It's as if Jones—Sinatra-esque in his cocked fedora—has discovered his alter ego or his former (or future) self and he partners up, while Meredith Monk's ululating soprano carries him into nether regions. Clad in a suit or naked, Jones is a velvety as Monk's voice is harsh.

Jones takes his audience on an ultimately horrifying journey with "22," a work that grew out of his "21," a linked series of abstract gestures and matching spoken phrases. Again there are light doorways and Jones shouts "Stop!" In between he recounts his gestures: "Deflated hero"; "I'm leaving the chorus line bound for glory"; "Stephen Spielberg." The story Jones tells this Thursday night in Washington rambles but doesn't stray. He begins with Big Mama, his grandmother, known for loving her vegetable garden and whipping her vegetables. The tale turns sinister and second hand as he retells a chiller about an abused vengeful wife, no food in the house and a hellish husband.

Throughout Jones is meandering—nearly 'noodling,' that horrible post-modernist term—through movement, at times returning to his foundational 21 gestures, at time wavering off course. "Stop!" again resets the story and the motion. Soon we've traveled with Jones to Rwanda, to the killing fields, where mud and blood and "Steven Spielberg"—a surprised intake of breath—all collide. "Save the child, sister," Jones whispers. Which one? The one from the grandmother's story, the one in Rwanda, the millions more suffering as Jones rattles off his tale, pares through his gestures. On video, ghostly images of a child underline the poignancy, but at last, all that is heard is Jones's breath. The journey complete, the ruminating on where we've been has just begun.

It's a tour de force, disturbing in it's intensity, yet somehow, with that alchemical skill Jones has, neatly tied together, from the whipped okra, to the inner city attic, to the mass graves of Rwanda, Jones has laid bare the turmoil of the 20th century: racism, brutality, unspeakable atrocities. All we can do is listen for the children, helpless at knowing that so much despair exists still.

From there Jones seems to lurch. Violinst Nurit Pacht revives an image from "The Breathing Show" when she leads and follows Jones through "Chaconne," the Bach solo somehow serving as a cleansing force for what has taken place before. Here Jones restates his movement vocabulary, fiddling with the formal—arabesques and well- positioned turns—and the invented—his wide-splayed second shuffle and a crotch grab, the undulating wave of an arm and the way his open faced hands trace a diamond in space. It feels improvisatory, particularly so next to the impromptu encore that follows. For Washington, Jones noted, he wasn't ready to lower the curtain without one last refrain. That came in a sunny, treacly loose-limbed solo danced to Blossom Dearie's chirped "Surrey With the Fringe On Top," yes, from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" It was welcome sweet dessert after a full meal.

Jones's second evening presented his full company in a work as current and prescient as the front-page headlines. "Blind Date" he calls it and it's Jones in his element, confronting the politics and the status quo that has wracked the nation. The piece is
polemical in the way Jones enjoys being challenging. But it's not, at this point, as masterful as his "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," nor his "Still/Here." Both those works were highly charged politically, but also engagingly artistic—art and politics sharing the stage. "Blind Date" doesn't quite reach that level, but it does wrestle with hot topic issues: war, sexuality, religion, faith and spirit.

Jones relies on his partnership with set designer Bjorn Amelan to pull together this multifaceted, multivoiced work. Amelan's square and rectangular panels break up the space and provide billboard space for text messages: excerpts from a publication in the Marine Corps Gazette titled "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation." A chilling document, it characterizes war in white paper terms, defining progress, noting in one chilling and trenchant sentence how the distinction between military and civilian experience may disappear.

Look around, Jones, in his dapper everyman's black suite, seems to say, and the enemy is upon us. The enemy, indeed, is us. Video by Peter Nigrini, including close-ups of Jones's multiethnic, multilingual cast, verifies that the brave new world Jones is defining and defying is one without borders, one that, like his company, looks like a politically correct Benetton advertisement. There's voluptuous Asli Bulbul, a Turkish émigré, who chain smokes and describes her homeland's fascination with the crescent moon, wearing heels and a lowcut dress. And there's Wen-Chung Lin, a Taiwanese national, who dances with the grace of a leopard and speed of a cheetah. And Maija Garcia chanting his Mexican national anthem. Jones's musicians in the pit—Akim Ndlovu, Neel Murgai, Pacht again and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain—have layered in an amalgamation of sounds and compositions from sitar to electric guitar, Irish folk songs to Bach fugue, Otis Redding to R. Kelly. The mix is stunning, thoughtful, soulful and integral to the breadth and depth of Jones's artistic project.

Once more Jones tells stories, sings songs and shows off his post-modern narrative roots in conventional ways. Using his own spoken text, narration and dialogue accompanied compellingly by actor Andrea Smith, a longtime Jones's collaborator with a deeply human stasge presence, Jones shows and tells true-sounding tales of repression and exploitation, war and danger. For much of the evening Smith is the creased and upright military man, off to battle and glory. Yet, the company and Jones serve as alter egos, sitting ducks literally at times. And Jones has no qualms about milking the obvious: putting a dancer in a cartoonish duck costume and parading cardboard cutout ducks in various states of injury and disarray across the stage. His point well taken: our nation is fighting a senseless and losing battle.

Choreographically Jones turns to Judsonian gamelike setups to render the atrocities of war. Dancers run, stop, shout out and topple at breakneck speed in diverging and converging paths. Sometimes there's time for the group to collect themselves and catch a falling body. Other times there may be one, two or more dancers in freefall, with no one in sight to break their falls. It's a war game with no winners. Another section tackles religion and religious coercion. A halting, childlike voice reads biblical exhortations from Leviticus about sexual regulations. The choreography features interchanging men, women, pairs and trios intertwining in erotic but coolly non-sensual moments. Jones has been more daring and more sexually explicit in other works, but his point is clear as Jones joins with his younger company members in this multiple ménage and comment on the politics of the bedroom.

Aside from designers Wierzel, Nigrini, Amelan nad costumer Liz Prince, the evening's standout stars are Jones and Smith, who create a compelling pair, Jones the more fatherly of the two. Smith asks "is it safe here," and Jones, preacher-like reenacts a burial, knowing all too well that nothing in such an incendiary environment can be called safe.

Finally, the grueling body count begins. Jones in his best Baptist preacher's voice recalls: India, 2001, 20,000 dead; Iraq, 96,000 and counting. "Praise the lord," he shouts, a true believer, as there can be no cynics in foxholes. "Africa, 33 million, London, 55 in a terrorist attack," and on, and on. He lets loose with a fervor, feverish in his force to believe in the face of unspeakable horrors. Then fantasy and reality converge and soon the company returns for one last fling together. This time no one needs to be caught or saved or buried. They're all just dancers again. The music comes up, the lights glitter and there they go as if out on a blind date to dance the night away, shuffling to the Electric Slide. What war? What disaster? What of it all, they seem to suggest. It's as if all else is hopeless, useless; the only thing Jones and his dancers can grasp is the dance itself, the groove and the beat of the innocuous disco. A blind date with destiny runs its course.

Volume 3, No. 44
November 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 Lisa Traiger



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last updated on November 28, 2005