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Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company

'D-Man in the Waters (Part 1),' 'The Phantom Project:  Still/Here Looking On'

Autobiograpy in the third person

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

June 18, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

In the post show talk given on 18 June at Sadler’s Wells, Bill T. Jones explained he is a student of three things: the “ah ha!!” response to art, of history and of the proposition an artist poses in making his art. Jones believes there should be purposeful ambiguity where the maker strives to put enigmas in the public domain that challenge and question. "D-Man in the Waters (Part 1)" seems a casual opener but with "The Phantom Project:  Still/Here Looking On" uses the anticipation of death as a synonym for living making this revisit to the past a chance to affirm the precariousness and continuation of life.

"D-Man in the Waters (Part 1)" has the dancers frolicking in varieties of green fatigues entering and exiting the stage in ensemble or solo form. This work employs some clever manipulations of formulaic dance composition. There is a forming of lines with fleshing hands, gestures that resemble fish fins that splinter into running, and several jumps that resemble entering and exiting water. This dance seems a metonym for swimming, employing a vocabulary that uses backward attitudes that flick over rolls that go on and off stage between the wing legs, pirouettes that spin, hand stands that sequence into chest dives, somersaults, belly slides from one side of the stage and beyond. These moves are interspersed with duets that help the dance make its point.

About mid way through, this athletic frolic takes a side road with a light change of mood changing the joyous atmosphere into subdued introspection. There is a simple walk on a diagonal from upstage right to downstage left that incorporates a curious drop in the left hip indicating a touch of urban ness. There is a section that incorporates hand gesticulations that remind me of church, each dancer passing this move and feeling from one to the next. Through out there is an abundance of exuberant energy, good spirits and joy. The gymnastics of "D-Man" seemed designed to accommodate the facility of Jones’ dancers, a very diverse group, different ages, shapes, ethnics, with extraordinary technical skill and stage presence.

In the opening lines of "The Phantom Project:  Still/Here Looking On" Jones says something to the effect that he was “wanting to leave something open ended”. As I watched Jones and his dancers, I instantly thought, "autobiography". This work is an intertextual event that has Jones as the narrator, speaking and dancing between solo, duet and ensemble spatial arrangements of his dancers. Jones’ dancers employ a movement vocabulary that is typically American/African American modern dance, an amalgamation of mundane movements, ballet, jazz, inverted, come acrobatics moves and expressionistic. Armed with this vocabulary the dancers portrayed the emotional and personal experiences given in recorded spoken text of terminally ill persons. These recordings recount strategies for life despite debilitating circumstances and diseases. In between these physicalisations were Jones’ verbal ramblings about thirty years of dance making. "The Phantom Project:  Still/Here Looking On" is a revisit to past pieces but instead of recollecting Jones chose to morph the past and situate it in the present, providing testimonials to illustrate the context in which dance was made and continues to be made.

Jones also felt that as the co-founder and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company he had a responsibility to reinforce the company’s longevity by providing the current dancers, some only members for a few months, a vehicle to embody the Company’s past. The process of making this dance was a history lesson for dancers as much as an introduction or reminder for audience members of the legacy of the Jones/Zane Company. These reminiscences are segued one from the other with commentary on the times and intent of Jones’ more controversial choreographic exploits, including his working relationship with Arnie Zane and Zane’s death, press reactions to notable works especially the first version, "Still/Here" (1994) as well as life experiences that influenced or were embedded in his work like his mother Estella Jones chanting as he danced a solo in "Last Supper in Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land" (1990). There was a recollection of a moment when Jones had thought to leave dance and a mentor raising his arm and saying, feel the weight, now drop your head, there is the drama, and there is the reason to keep dancing.

"Still/Here Looking On" is a work that comments on Jones’ work as much as it testifies about “the struggle” whether it is for controversial artistic propositions or about living life. Jones’ verbal delivery was passionate and rhetorical as well as sarcastic, cynical, and antagonistic, taunting the audience to think but mostly to feel perhaps uncomfortable when hearing and seeing depicted in movement other peoples’ histories; uncomfortable because you knew you were watching something really quite personal, private. This is why autobiography comes to mind. An autobiography seeks in depth investigations into self-knowledge becoming a manifestation of the self reflecting on self, experiences, events, moments of transcendence, transformations or affirmations. An autobiography offers more than an artefact for appreciation, critical analysis or evaluation though. As a piece of literature, whether written or spoken, autobiography stands in for, or memorialises, someone’s life. A paradox arises when you appraise/appreciate the work and its inherent descriptions of truths and propositions revealed through verbal and embodied descriptions of a person’s experiences. If that autobiography is a dance work, how can its integrity survive the tangled, shifting way the dancing body is read?

Besides his professed formalism, Jones' arsenal of compositional devices includes the interspersion of African American dance modes that are rooted in the African American church. These modes employ self-examination of lived experiences as testimonial and fortification of communal truths. Essentially you have your heart out on your sleeve and ask simultaneously “what do you think” and “what is the risk”? Jones stated in the post show talk that he was afraid the British critical establishment “don’t get the funk that informs my formalism!” I guess some of them didn't. I saw that bit of “church” in D-MAN as one of its many movement gestures; that bit of church is at the compositional heart of "The Phantom Project:  Still/Here Looking On". I assume if your experience does not include the institution of slavery, bigotry, African American practices of Christianity, the making of jazz as art practice, post modern dance as a political movement, and the politics associated with AIDS in the American context, you won’t “get the funk”.

If autobiography discusses events in life that have led to a person’s individual development of self-knowledge then an audience member can only “witness” from his or her perspective the clarity of presentation. The “witness” can confer the accuracy of acknowledged and agreed historical information if it has been part of her or his own history. The “witness” can join in, see the point, agree or disagree given the quality of his or her knowledge, his or her lived experiences. The strength of autobiography is its ability to comment on acknowledged and agreed upon historical information even if the information provided is shaped by a singular perspective. But autobiography is a literary vehicle and its medium is words. Words are part of Jones arsenal of devices used to fortify the ability of "Still/Here Looking On" to comment and contextualise the material it presents. In the end, the “witness” of "Still/Here Looking On" has at least this element to empathise with, capture an insight from or choose as some audience members at Sadler’s Wells did, retreat into confusion or disdain.

Bill T Jones’ work has always been intensely personal; a sword honed in the excesses and eccentricities of American dance at a particularly combative time. Even if in his conversations Jones refers to himself in the third person, his works, even when more or less non literal movement expressions like "D-Man" are extensions of his perspective. Jones is always on the podium, a preacher trying to make sense of the chaos he lives in; trying to make the “witness” understand what he’s talking about but from Jones’ perspective. A perspective that demands you acknowledge the efficacy of dance to absorb difference; the efficacy of specifically chosen compositional devices that shape the most contentious of political mediums, the dancing body, to illustrate and interrogate ideas about sexuality, race and mortality. It is this yakking at sensibilities that has made Jones the provocateur even now when his work seems more mainstream, conventional and not as overtly shocking, as one would assume.

Edited by Jeff.

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