Still/Thereby MJ Thompson
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
The Phantom Project—The 20th Season
If Bill T. Jones has been haunted, in mind, gesture, and artistic output since the death of his partner/collaborator Arnie Zane in 1988, it is a specter that has proven contrarily useful. Both in terms of his own production and for the dancescape more broadly, Jones’s demons remain exhilarating and uncannily in sync with the most urgent cultural debates of our time. This season, in a 20th anniversary celebration that risked slipping, as all such events do, into redundancy or sheer myth-making, Jones asserted instead the lingering relevance of the early work and the luminous power of the new.
I caught two different programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM, February), and came away swearing to always see dance in duplicate, to go back for seconds for the sheer thrill of seeing how contingent and, in the end, beyond scripting performance remains. The first night began with Jones’s gently urging the crowd to vote in the pending elections. But the political quickly became personal, as the curtains opened to reveal Jones in silhouette for the New York premiere of the solo Chaconne (2003). A meditation on what constitutes a life—whether his mother Estelle’s, Arnie’s, or his own—Jones began with a fragmentary recollection: "The last time I saw her, she was so weak.…The last time I saw her, all she wanted to do was sing." He then offers twenty-two shapes, each introduced with a word or two: Melted B-boy, after the money shot, Estelle’s MRI, Stephen Spielberg, Trisha. Are these words descriptive of the movement or ironic? Do they name gesture or sentiment? Or are they eccentric nicknames, uttered by a choreographer performing his dance with a workman’s concentration, in an affect-free way?
If the relationship between movement and spoken word remains opaque, the structure of the work—in which cumulative, repeated gestures recall the influence of postmodern choreographers like Trisha Brown on Jones—is transparent. Against a white band of light, a scrim that flares from silver to blue, Chaconne beams cinematic images to the crowd. Beautifully lit by Robert Wierzel, the lights soon shimmer up to render Jones in full detail and dimensionality. Fleeting motion-capture images by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar project Jones’s dancing body in negative—a ghosting that allows for duets and trios with himself.
Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger (2003), based on a short story by Flannery O’Connor, jumps fearlessly into the question of race in America, all the while offering a formal challenge: how do you attend carefully to two discrete activities at the same time? With actors reading aloud a condensed version of the story—in which a white man betrays his grandson, yet somehow finds redemption via his unified fear of the city and the African-American—the company dances along, at times enacting the text, at times challenging us to find the connection between body and word. Struggling to listen carefully and watch the dance at the same time, I wondered instead at the beautiful simplicity of Bjorn Amelan’s design—whereby a large, empty moon becomes a screen onto which he projects colors and shapes evocative of shifts in mood and plot. And I wondered how Jones wanted us to read this story of the wretched and small, written in the 1950s and set in the segregated South, and where, in fact, the "mercy" lay?
But at Reading, Mercy’s end, Jones makes an excellent move, reminding us that if he has been our most politically engaged choreographer, he is also incredibly adept at the craft of theatre-making. The piece ends and a large, dim spotlight, from which red cards fall in slow continuum, beams down on the stage. The company drops form. Some leave. Some sit down. Others remove shoes. We are backstage. It’s an old postmodern trick and it is performed here with a seamless calm that made me a believer all over again. Quite suddenly, Mercy 10 × 8 on a Circle (2003) begins. Here, Jones reworks the earlier Mercy distilled as pure movement. This time out, there are no distractions. There is only the lush dancing of company members like Ayo Janeen Jackson and Leah Cox. As Jones challenges us to question how movement means, and how we see or fail to see it, he remains as resolutely curious about uncodified movement— quirky gestures and non-verbal language— as he is about ballet, modern and the host of other techniques embedded in his work.
The following night, I went back for more. And the program was uneven: ecstatic, rigorous, angry, messy even. Full of twists and surprises, wind and inspiration, improvisations and outbursts, Jones again reminded us that great theatre risks everything. As he suggested in the program’s final work, The Phantom Project: Still/Here Looking On, they are simply artists trying things, seeing what works or doesn’t. With that degree of experimentation, there was much dance for thought. For instance, a version of Arnie Zane’s Continuous Replay (1978) that began the evening is perhaps the best, most ecstatic thing I’ve seen in years. It is an accumulation dance that features forty-five hand and arm gestures performed as the dancers move around the perimeter of the stage. Accompanied by DJ Spooky’s deluge of discordant sound, Continuous Replay begins with Erick Montes’s extraordinary leap onto the stage.
As briefly as Montes arrives onstage, he leaves and starts the dance again, one gesture at a time. Arms sweep to the left at the hip. A hand forms a beak and nods downward. Fully extended arms reach in opposite directions and shudder as the face looks upward. He lunges with hand to forehead as if in prayer. The movement is as relentlessly engaging as the assortment of dancers who join him, whether formally "accumulating" or else walking, running or joining the crowd and breaking the flow with a stuttered gesture or improvised moment. As some thirty-five naked dancers gather on stage— company members and alumni including Heidi Latsky, Sean Curran, Lois Welk and Arthur Aviles, to name a few— we see the action, again and again, from multiple angles and on different bodies. The singular, utopic vision drew cheers and a standing ovation.
Also on the program was There Were… (1993/2002), a movement study inflected by European court and African-American social dance, in which Jones matches decorum and rhythm, formal arm extensions alongside rocking torso isolations. The evening ended with the weirdly compelling Phantom Project/Still/Here Looking On, in which Jones offered a time-line of his career so far, radically overshadowed by an abbreviated reconstruction of Still/Here (1994). If the new work retained the fire of the enduring stories of the people who participated in the original survivor workshops, it also unleashed Jones’s own lingering piss and vinegar at the work’s critical reception. Will Jones ever be free of the cranky debates engendered by this monumental piece? Will his work ever be read for its formal, aesthetic values? Would he, or his fans, even want it that way? His demons, our luck. Our demons, his luck. By night’s end, with the entire company gathered onstage, Jones said good bye as the crowd went wild: Good bye this, good bye that, "Good bye Arnie," and left us looking forward to the next 20 years.
mj thompson is a writer living in Brooklyn.