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Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zne Dance Company

'The Breathing Show'

by Lewis Whittington

April 11-14, 2002 -- The Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts , Philadelphia, PA

There is a small, dubious history of virtuoso dancers taking the stage after their physical prime. Isadora Duncan did it to a point to which George Balanchine called her "a drunken, fat woman who for hours was rolling around like a pig." The dance-stage has seen everything from wayward flesh escaping from Martha Graham's torn robes to Rudolf Nureyev, in a pound of make-up, crawling around the stage on his last tour as the aged "Prodigal Son." We saw it on the screen as Fred Astaire turned into a parody of himself trying to revive his lost screen persona of the master of fleet-footedness.

There are currently a couple of masters who escape such deluded vanity -- Mikhail Baryshnikov leaves his pyro-technical past at the door and frames himself in the best possible light of an aging dancer in the context of his company the White Oak Dance Project. But, it's Bill T. Jones who has the sense to admit that the body is different at 50 than it is at 22. He might, in fact, be the exception at demonstrating what dance holds for a dancer his age.

Jones is a philosophically unpredictable creator who is willing to go to spontaneous places performing his ever-changing 1999 solo work "The Breathing Show." He keeps to vital, important artistry that is anything but an attempt at reviving past glory.
Jones envisions a tranquil space to explore what he had to still offer as a dancer. He sets it up as an inter-active journey, with songs and antidotes, that cut through any perceived grandness his stage persona might command, for us and for him. Thrown in are his autobiographical fragmented musings on art, life, love, memories, current events and not the least, his commitment to dance. And physically, it is a movement diary of the dancer's past, present and future.

With "arty" touches such as a spiky mobile set and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain moving across the stage, Jones appears in introductory statements about art and longevity. Jones's abstractions can move at mach-speed from agitated references to singing African American spirituals (which he sings gloriously acappella). His dancing immediately shows sinewy mind and body as he launches into song cycle by Franz Schubert, his moves lightly expressing the composer's lyricism and his commentary admitting to "coming out as a romantic."

From the start, Jones dances in "Breathing" with an air of improvisation and demonstrates his wide-ranging style, his technical prowess and, always, his joy of dancing. He can leap with perfect extension and, isolate, drawing the eye to the tiniest nuances of the body. His modern-classicist flourishes during the Schubert section are linked together with lithe gesturing and idiosyncratic footwork. His clarity of movement can look occasionally studied, but mostly his articulation is hypnotic.
Jones gives a forced lecture in his presentation of the work of Daniel Nagrin, a soloist whose repetitiously patterned work "path" had Jones moving in a dancey box step across the stage holding a plank. And his audience participation "Floating the tongue" contains indulgences he might think about dropping since they are of questionable interest to a general audience. And his occasional forays into robotic-type club dancing is dated and misplaced here. But the audience delighted in his improvisation "Ghost in the machine" which had him completely funked-out for a James Brown number and even jaunty in "Surrey with the Fringe on Top."

His invitation to the audience for someone to dance with him that brought a couple of hip-happy dancers Alexis and Cipher onto the stage, brought back slam-dancing, but was kept witty by Jones' insistent lead. He commented afterward that such chance encounters in dance, like casual sex, could be as profound as anything else. And he is fascinating as he walks through how he processes choreography by running through a phrase and narrating. He tells us his technical application of the phrase, then almost poetically reveals how he transcends such mental intrusion.

He ended with straightforward classicism via leaps to Mozart and essayed a tribute to New York, set to Blossom Dearie's rendition of "I'll Take Manhattan," that possessed Astaire's grace and Jones' bittersweet pratfalls. At one point Jones, schooled in yoga, does a head stand that is so balanced that he lifts his arms off of the floor. After seeing this work at a transitional period in Jones' life, I think he was standing on his head for his art, not for us.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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