Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s A Letter to My Nephew is a study in personal and historical layers. The BAM Harvey Theater, where the piece was performed as part of the 2017 Next Wave Festival, is gilded and rich in adornment, yet weathered around the edges. Jones’s Letter is similar, simultaneously grand and intimate, yet lived-in. Its themes continue Jones’s previous choreographic explorations of masculinity, race, and the physical body’s transition through states of strength and weakness, often eliciting strong responses from his audience. Letter builds upon his previous work Analogy/Lance, illuminating the life of his nephew Lance T. Briggs. Imagery surrounding Briggs’s sexuality, history of addiction, and debilitating illness figure prominently in the performance. This biography is nested, as explained by the BAM promotional materials, “navigat[ing] familial relationships within the context of a larger socio-political history.”
The company members inhabit Lance’s persona, the weight of his narrative falling on each of their bodies in turn, via the many brief solos and duets that materialize throughout the performance. And the bodies have changed somewhat in the interim since Analogy/Lance; several new members joined the company in 2017 (including Vinson Fraley, Jr., Barrington Hinds, Penda N’Diaye, and Huiwang Zhang), all performing strongly alongside more tenured cast members.
The performance is book-ended by the salutation and sign-off of a letter from the choreographer to his subject, cast onto a large, rigid white square that serves as both screen and prop throughout the performance: “Dear Nephew,” it reads, “It’s autumn in New York.” The screen then becomes a roof, held aloft by the dancers’ hands while they stand close in a clump. We peer down at the square, as well as the X-shaped pathways delineated in white tape across the stage. There is a sharp-looking DJ stand tucked upstage, just outside the action. When the DJ sporadically assumes his post, we can sometimes see his shadow looming large against the back wall. An original score composed by Nick Hallett (performed by the composer and baritone Matthew Gamble) keeps our ears busy, merging club and hip-hop music with more solemn vocals and spoken word. We hear counting, slowly, a possible nod to Jones’s previous solo work, 21, which was built around a numbered sequence of poses. Or perhaps Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, which deploys a similar device.
Dancers wear various combinations of sweat pants, hoodies, tank tops, and the occasional button-down shirt. These are mostly a unifying grey-scale, though we enjoy some vivid accents; Vinson Fraley, Jr.’s red socks create a satisfying image, two bright points strutting through choreography and traveling in and out of a stark white hospital bed which rolls in its own circuits around the stage. Due to the wealth of sights and sounds, Letter demands the full attention of its viewers, but the shifts in energy escape an overwrought affront.
The choreographic style and tone range from the fervor of a fist fight to contemplative stillness. One of the first things that we hear as an audience is the sound of a punch echoing. Bodies run, scuffle, and slide to the floor. Are there sides? It’s hard to tell. We begin to watch a collection of rapid solos and small groups, occasionally in a tightly-packed cluster or line; they travel along the axes of the X or play in the crosshairs, tumbling out and being pulled back in. The screen lights up again, asking us what we were fighting about—was it love or money? Dancers play with speed and stillness; in this letter, words and spaces carry equal weight. Acting as both players and props, their motionlessness frames and reshapes the airspace around fellow cast members. As an audience, our focus narrows, zooming in on the simple details of a single body: an elegantly curved spine pushing against the ground, a bent-over full-body shake, the slow-motion mechanics of a lush strut on the diagonal.
A vogue ball figures prominently, dancers cavorting across the pathways in a walk-off. We also see a cleanly executed tendu combination by the group facing upstage, all proper angles and head placements hearkening back to classic ballet center work. And there are frequent doses of fast, low-flying movement: quick feet, big arms gesturing and tracing circles, torsos creating their own orbits through space, and the occasional thrilling drop to the stage. In an early solo, Jenna Riegel appears as a swift, black-clad force of nature; one almost expects to hear a whistling sound as her limbs slice the air.
The partnering in A Letter to My Nephew is mesmerizing; dancers connect and curl into negative spaces, the hollow of a neck or torso. The dance partners’ grip is that of lovers, holding hard to the back of each others’ skulls, a firm binding of wrists behind the back. One dancer’s bent knee flirts through the other dancer’s legs, appearing for admiration by the audience. There is no rule about who can share their weight and how, in terms of gender or size. Lifts are clinging and bent; we rarely see a grandiose shape, though there are a few strong verticals, lifted either upright or as a fully inverted spear. Then the shapes dissolve, and dancers melt softly into the floor where they roll away from each other or abandon each other on foot.
At one point, a list of cities materializes on the back wall; the history of Lance’s youth plays out against today’s news stories. We see video footage of past tragedies, a car in flames, white supremacists marching, burning on the white screen as it rests on the stage. However, the socio-political interjections feel somewhat like context; Lance still reads as the central focus of this performance. In Jones’s book Last Night on Earth, he describes his vision for another work, using words that seem applicable to Letter as well: “It would speak about being human. About how we are the places we have been, the people we have slept with. How we are what we have lost and what we dream for.” And this may be one of Jones’s most consistent strengths—his ability to encourage unflinching discourse around race and sexuality by his presentations of the human body.
The performance closes with a monologue rapped by Lance T. Briggs himself and a sign-off from our ever-present white screen: “Love, Your Uncle.” As the audience, we have just watched the world fold in on itself, this new work taking pages from the company’s own history, transcribing memories of Lance’s adventures layered with documentation of international socio-political events: We are reading the personal alongside the political. In A Letter to My Nephew, Jones has provided us with a powerful meditation on the importance of context, elucidating how past adventures and tragedies, for better or worse, color how we walk through our world today.