This October, Bill T. Jones and his company were back in New York City, performing A Quarreling Pair at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Jones’s mesmerizing dance theater piece takes as a starting point a short 1945 puppet play by Jane Bowles, in which two sisters incessantly quarrel over their different needs and desires. Using Bowles’s play as a focal point, Jones works with the different styles of puppetry, vaudeville, and postmodern dance to produce a seductive and provocative evening.
If you have seen Jones’s work before, you are familiar with his refined use of sound, color, and space—Jones is as sophisticated in his set design and musical choices as he is in his choreography. Even before dancers have appeared on the stage in A Quarreling Pair, Jones creates evocative atmospheres through glittery lighting and jazzy live music. Then, as in vaudeville, an announcer prepares us for the evening’s acts.
The piece opens with a shadow theater production of Bowles’s play, in which two silhouetted dancers move like human-operated puppets. The puppet show, together with the presentational and entertaining dance acts that follow, brings us into an unusual space in the postmodern dance world. Jones replaces neutral facial expressions with smiles and abstract movement with evocative gestures. And there are tricks on stage! In a particularly humorous dance act, a woman removes a banana and a dead chicken from under her dress.
Jones is known for making dances that explore sexual, gender, and racial tensions, and his choice for a vaudevillian atmosphere in this work acts as a particularly good fit for such issues. In A Quarreling Pair, the performers are at once entertainers and “oddities.” First among them Miss Rhoda, who cannot bear an existence confined to her identity at home, and after leaving her sister discovers the pleasures of the stage as a singer. Misfits like Rhoda and sexually ambiguous characters like La Torita, a Mexican drag performer whom Rhoda falls for, find in vaudeville a space in which they are allowed to be sexy and sensual, where they are able to express their identity in the most flamboyant of ways.
Yet Jones quickly makes the frame of the theater apparent, uncovering the sadder and more serious facets of the demands of performing an identity considered outside of the social norm. In one of the most touching scenes of the evening, after having failed in her singing career, Rhoda, suitcase in hand, slowly crosses the stage in isolation while a giant projection behind her makes her look smaller and more vulnerable than we have seen her yet. As Rhoda’s loneliness grows, the piece leaves vaudeville behind and increasingly moves towards more symbolic images and Jones’s signature abstract movement phrases, bringing us back to the familiar language of contemporary dance.
A Quarreling Pair is at once a humorous and serious, multi-layered meditation on identity and dance. As always, the dancers in the company are exceptionally expressive, extending their energy out of their bodies and through space with precision. Their dancing, together with Jones’s artistic direction, pushes the boundaries of contemporary dance in an exciting and provocative direction, in a piece simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking.
Barbareschi is an MA student at NYU. pursuing experimental performance and dance.