Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
by Carmel Morgan
March 22, 2008 -- George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia
On March 22, 2008, at the George Mason Center for the Arts in the DC suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presented “Chapel/Chapter,” an innocence-shattering work that premiered in December 2006. “Chapel/Chapter” was specifically created for the Harlem Stage at The Gatehouse in New York City, but a year later the work was adapted for the proscenium stage. If dances were rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, this piece would be rated “R” for intense violence. It’s a dark work, definitely not suitable for children. In fact, children figure prominently as victims.
Mr. Jones, a modern dance master, is known for provocative, socially conscious choreography. “Chapel/Chapter,” like other works by Jones, incorporates video and text. It offers reflections about our cultural obsession with violence. Among other things, the audience witnesses a game show, a courtroom interview, a prison drama, a tragic opera, an inexplicable suicide, and a child’s funeral. In various short narratives that are cleverly woven together, we are exposed to a dizzying onslaught of disturbing words and images. Only in the end is there the possibility of spiritual redemption.
“Chapel/Chapter” unfolds like a mystery novel. It begins as the house lights are up and the audience enters the theater. Dancers in neon orange prison garb pace back and forth on the stage like caged animals, staring downward. The prisoners are gently corralled by guards in navy blue. Some audience members are seated on the stage’s perimeter. There is a screen as a backdrop against which a stained glass window is projected, giving the theater a church-like feel. With an audible and ominous click the doors to the theater finally shut, imprisoning the audience along with the day-glo detainees.
The house lights stay up for a long while after everyone has been seated. There is haunting music by Christopher Antonio William Lancaster and Lawrence “Lipbone” Redding. A vocalist, Jennifer Jade Ledesna, sings about things being “all right.” The prisoners line up. Then chimes call out, the lights go down, and the tale picks up speed. There are a series of spoken and danced confessions – a summer camp suicide, a grisly murder of a family of four, and the death of a “troubled child” at the hands of her father.
A killer with a sexual fantasy chooses the Soto family to terrorize, sparing only their dog (Erick Montes), who releases a spine-chilling howl of mourning. Butterflies and a hopscotch game decorate the set when the death of the Little Girl (Maija Garcia) is told. Her father (Andrea Smith) repeats, “It was an accident,” but one cannot accidentally force a child to eat cat food. The final story is a contribution from company member Charles Scott, whose childhood friend committed suicide in front of him by going over a waterfall.
The stories and movements build and repeat, creating a complexly layered theater piece. The dancers become increasingly familiar and also ghost-like because we realize their fate. Our stomachs collectively turn with disgust each time we hear the lurid details of their deaths. Yet we continue to watch and listen.
The night before Easter was perhaps an oddly appropriate time to see “Chapel/Chapter,” as the overarching message appears to be one of renewal. In the closing moments of the work, criminals are lifted, embraced, and rolled away as the words “This is the way the world begins” wash over the audience.
The brilliance of “Chapel/Chapter” is not in the dancing, it’s in the storytelling. Much of the dancing is simply not that interesting. The dancers come across as exceedingly human (or dog-like in the case of Montes), but the choreography doesn’t show off the height of their talents. Instead, dance seems to take a back seat to the other elements of the collaboration. Taken as a whole, however, “Chapel/Chapter” is important and affecting.