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Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company

'The Gift / No God Logic', 'Etude', Excerpts from 'Estella's Prayer from Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin / The Promised Land', 'Reading Mercy and the Artificial Nigger', 'Mercy 10 x 8 on a Circle'

Social memory and the theatre of Bill T. Jones

by Ramsay Burt

June 15, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

I remember seeing Bill T Jones, Arnie Zane and Company the first time they came to England as part of the 1983 Dance Umbrella Festival. In particular I remember their collaboratively choreographed duet "Rotary Action". At the time their association with contact improvisation seemed to ally them with the radical and experimental work happening in England at the time under the label 'new dance'.

I then remember going to see "Still/Here" at the Edinburgh Festival in 1995, already notorious for Arlene Croce's infamous refusal to see it but to publish a devastating attack on it anyway. Compared with the radicalism I remembered from the 1980s, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Aesthetically, I felt at the time, "Still/Here" was quite mainstream. Its subject, like that of the Last Supper, was radical and contentious, but compared with the more experimental work of the 1980s, it relied on a strong spoken and sung narrative texts to make its point while using dance either as an illustrative support or to create a sense of feel good communal interdependency.

Seeing the first programme of The Phantom Project: 20th Anniversary Season at Sadler's Wells on Tuesday confirmed this for me. What surprised me, however, was the contrast between the first and oldest piece on the programme, Arnie Zane's "The Gift/No God Logic" and Jones's 1998 solo for himself, "Etude" which immediately followed it. In the 1980s it hadn't been clear to me what the difference was between 'Bill 'n Arnie's' works (though it may have been clear to others). Seeing "The Gift" showed that Zane's sensibility was abstract and formalist.

"The Gift" was set to a recording by Montserrat Caballe of extracts from an opera by Verdi. Given a gay fascination with operatic divas, Zane seems to have chosen to deliberately contrast the lushness of the arias with his cool formalism: the neat reorderings of the little wall of four dancers, the structure of the piece as a whole with its reprise of the opening at the end. It was not a piece I saw first time round, so I can only guess how it may have been cast. Was it originally two men and two women and were Jones and Zane initially the two men? How might their considerable onstage charisma have influenced the way the choreography looked? How was it danced? In 2004 the dancers seemed beautifully rehearsed, delicately precise in a way that comes from, I guess, dancers who have learnt ballet as well as contact, Graham or Humphrey as well as Klein technique. But I guess it might have had a rougher, more risky look in the 1980s. One or two of the lifts between the men seemed to me to recall some of the showy contact lifts in "Rotary Action".

Seeing "Etude" reminded me again of "Rotary Action", this time of Jones's solo in it. The latter was chock full of eclectically disconnected sequences of striking gestures -- the Faune from "L'apres midi d'un faune", cartoon characters like Road Runner, etc. "Etude" was similarly eclectic, but now images of joy and grace contrasted ones of suffering and oppression: I thought I saw a slave flinching under a beating, together with images of a prayerful raising up of the eyes to heaven, a prancing joy and a love of the clarity of sharp balletic plastique. And the way Jones, during the opening, danced for some time with his back to the audience recalled for me Trisha Brown's solo "If You Couldn't See Me". She danced this entirely facing the back of the stage. Jones performed "You Can See Us" a duet version of this with Brown one year, I think, at the Avignon festival.

Zane's influence on Jones's choreography during the 1980s should perhaps be re-evaluated. Taking the two pieces together, I realised that while Zane had been the formalist, Jones had less sense of form but a strong sense of the potential of movement to hint at narrative meanings that could carry powerful social messages. In Jones's new 45 minute piece "Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger", the powerful message seems to emerge from the physical theatricalisation of a rather gothic story by Flannery O'Connor. This narrates a day in the life of a racist old southern gentleman taking his grandson for his first visit to the big city of Atlanta.

Jones seems to have judged that the old man's racism is so explicit that it needs no further comment. What is interesting is how this comes across through the relation between spoken work and dance and physical theatre. But the spoken word dominates the movement and is presented in a very conservative way, clearly articulated by powerful, experienced actors, just as, for example, Sojourner Truth's famous speech "Ain't I a Woman", and the biblical story of Job and his comforters were narrated in "The Last Supper". I remember text being used in a much more experimental and fragmented way in Jones and Zane's works in the 1980s.

I guess there were problems with the projection of the two extracts from "The Last Supper" shown on Tuesday night, but it is clear why they were there. Jones's mother Estella up on stage in a wonderful flowery dress and hat saying and singing a prayer in a powerful, Pentecostalist manner while her son improvised what seemed a rather restrained solo beside her was worth showing however poor the video quality. The other excerpt showed the end of piece where the stage was full of naked men and women dancing together in a representation of paradise.

The last piece on the programme, "Mercy 10 X 8 on a Circle", seemed to aspire to generate the same feel-good sensibility. Starting with a quiet, restrained duet, it slowly built with more and more couples on stage to a climactic circle dance. It was set to a recording by Glenn Gould of a Beethoven piano piece. I don't usually like Beethoven but Gould brought out something hard and brittle in the music. For me, Jones is not very musical and didn't match this quality in his choreography. What it needed was the sense of form that made me find "The Gift" the most interesting piece on the programme.

Edited by Jeff.

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