From talking to colleagues and dancers, Bill T. Jones seems either highly admired or intensely disliked. I have been in both camps. At times his work has looked emotionally cool but alive with a wonderful cogent formality. He has also struck me as the most self-indulgent dancemaker working contemporary stages, with an almost pathological need to continually lick his wounds.
One thing is clear. You never know what you will get. Jones is a choreographer who keeps asking formal and other questions; and he wants to develop new strategies for his dance making. The most recent concert was an excellent demonstration of that ongoing journey.
Right now Jones also happens to show his work on some gorgeously beautiful dancers, starting with the striking tall blonde, Catherine Cabeen, whose extensions can hold up the firmament to the ferocious intensity of the tiny but powerful Erick Montes, and the whirlwind intensity of curly-headed Asli Bulbul.
Billed as the company’s 20th anniversary tour, "Phantom" offered a fascinating though somewhat overly long program with beautifully reworked pieces from the past, “Continuous Replay” and “There Were,” and two more recent works “Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger” and “Mercy 10 x 8 on a Circle.”
In 1989 Jones reconceived Arnie Zane’s 1978 solo “Continuous Replay” into an ensemble piece for his company and a number of community performers. Here it included one who carried a baby on her hips. Originally, Zane, apparently, had worked his way laterally across the stage with a set of 45 accumulating hand and gestures. That’s how tiny, nude Erick Montes started out this stunning homage to Zane. Other company members picked up the patterns against a background of the dozen or so community dancers who also followed a stage-right to stage-left trajectory but built a crescendo of their own. The first time, for instance Jesselito Bie entered slouching which evolved into walking, sauntering and running. Into this double layered fabric, Jones wove yet another thread. First he showed all the dancers nude; gradually they put on clothes until everybody--except for Montes, the Zane figure--was dressed. Playing with sameness and difference, “Replay” was a a splendid variation on Anna Halprin’s 1965 “Parades and Changes.” Akim Funk Buddha’s live multi-phonics enveloped the piece with a shimmering luminosity.
The elegiaic “There Were…” (1993, revised 2002) posits Jones as a visitor to a kind of Elysian field of friends and lovers who have died. Watching mainly from the side lines, he is still a strikingly handsome figure. Fortunately the sentimentality of his verbal prelude could not derail the haunting and elegant choreography. As a score he couldn’t have chosen better than Cage’s sparse 1950 “Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard”, superbly performed by the violin/piano duo of David Abel and Julie Steinberg. Its sparseness, with its silences and sense of suspended time, exquisitely complemented Jones’ choreography.
A stately formality informed these spacious, visually stunning encounters. One woman pulled her skirt from behind as if trailing all of humanity. One man hopped up and down, straight as a rod. Three men entered while others just watch. Were they newcomers? There was lot of standing, watching and waiting, maybe like in the anterooms and galleries of French courts. Couples formed, perhaps into a quasi-minuet, perhaps politely nodding to others, but also quickly dissolving like shrouds of memory.
There was also something monumental about this choreography’s quietness. A daisy chain looked like a freeze on a Greek temple; the huddles like those war memorials with the fallen dead all piled up. Even kisses seemed frozen into Rodin’s white marble.
“Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger” was less completely satisfying. Jones based the work on Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” a dark story about a bigoted grandfather, Mr. Head, and his grandson, Nelson’s one-day trip to “the city” which turns into a kind of descent into hell for both them. Jones set the story—since then similarly experimented with in the recent movie “Palindromes”—on strikingly differently sized, for the most part, couples. (I couldn’t help but think of the physical discrepancy in the Zane/Jones partnership). The piece succeeds beautifully in having the choreography move in and out of the narrative, was read from opposite sides of the stage by Jones and his sister dancer/actor Rhodessa Jones.
When the huge black man appears in the train, in pops the statuesque Cabeen; when Nelson spies the black woman, she ascends triumphantly out of a group of dancers hoisting her aloft. As the grandfather/grandson relationship disintegrates all the grandfathers line up against all the grandsons. At other times Jones lets the narrative go its own way and focuses on the tension between the two travelers, various Nelsons huddling, climbing, splitting away from the old men.
The idea of unmooring the story away from its specifics into a kind of parable was certainly a good one. Yet “Reading” doesn’t quite hold together. Maybe Jones’ conceit ultimately proved to be to distracting. As it is the choreography, however, did not sufficiently capture O’Connor’s choking, roiling underbelly or its emotional claustrophobia. That was left to convey by Roumain’s richly colored score, performed live by himself and violinist Kate Steinberg and former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud.
“Mercy” used movement material from “Reading”—primarily highly physical, many of them floor-bound couple interactions—and put them on top of Beethoven’s “32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor.” The juxtaposition—except on a conceptual level—didn’t make any sense. The Beethoven, with its own contractions and expansions, has a clear architecture and unmistakable trajectory; the choreography just seemed lost. This was one case where it was easy to follow Balanchine’s suggestion: if you don’t like the dancing, just listen to the music. Julie Steinberg was the pianist extraordinaire.
If there was every any question about whether live music really is all that essential to live dance, in this concert presenters—and dancers—could have seen and heard just exactly what the difference is. HUGE.