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Review 2, 2-20: Reading & Dancing
Jones Keeps it Real with 'Artificial'
By Faith Pilger
Copyiright 2004 Faith Pilger
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NEW YORK -- Bill T.
Jones/Arnie Zane Company earlier this month celebrated its 20th
season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House
with the Phantom Project, four retrospective evenings of performance
featuring special musical and theatrical guests, the full company,
a few fabulous alumni and rare solo performances by Bill T. Jones
himself. Celebrity guests included Susan Sarandon, Cassandra Wilson,
Vernon Reid, and NYC's ever-collaborative DJ Spooky. The February
6 performance, which I attended, was an 85-minute selection of works
(sans intermission) ranging from video excerpts dating back to 1990
to the 2003 "Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger," based on
a racially-charged short
story by Flannery O'Conner.
The evening opened with
Jones's "Chaconne," a solitary performance by the choreographer
and his own phantom video alter-ego. The raised curtain exposed
the dark silhouette of a man against the broad, blue, about 20-feet
tall video screen which stretched across the stage entirely and
divided the up/downstage space almost in half. Jones's words spoke
volumes in small-fragmented phrases: "The last time I saw her, she
was very weak.... The last time I saw her, all she wanted to do
was sing." The voice was powerful, but so were the movements....
His body appeared stronger and more supple than the last solo appearance
I remember from him which, frankly, had been a disappointment. This
time I sensed a new motivation.
Jones's phrases spoke
of shapes numbered from one to 22, images and statements from the
mundane to the comically absurd and poetic. The dance was at first
wonderful, making associations in my mind between the comments and
the name "Trisha," and the idea of a weak woman, perhaps a friend
who had passed away. Was she a phantom? Or was she headed towards
an elusive future in which the meaning of her words would continue
to reverberate long past the sound of her voice? Somewhere half-way
through the piece, the dance began to feel somewhat repetitive.
I had seen variations on these 22 phrases and heard their associations
enough times that I felt I might be able to perform them myself.
Just then the nicest thing happened; the words and movements came
together, the phantom image and the live man moved close together
and seemed to dance as one. As Jones spoke of the flight taken to
meet this woman, he caught the audience and held them to the end.
A scrim was lowered
and the video screen disappeared into the darkness. Slowly, naturally
a few people entered and exited to set up the next "scene." During
this transition, we watched a video clip being projected onto the
gauzy scrim. The effect was ghostly. The images came from Jones's
"Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" and "The Prayer,"
the latter images featuring Jones and his mother, Estella. The former
was breathtaking, featuring numerous naked bodies of all shapes
and sizes drifting forward and backwards, baring themselves to an
audience with a sort of honesty reminiscent of "Hair." A woman behind
me whispered to her neighbor, "I can't even imagine seeing a show
like that live on stage!" Her friend responded, "It toured the world,
I saw it!"
The latter video was
for me the most precious moment of the evening. With the poignancy
of any great documentary, Estella Jones was revealed. Her half-muffled
voice declared with a cocky vulnerability, "Before I start I want
to tell you something. Don't you think for a moment that I don't
know what I'm doing up here (audience laughter.) We've been performing
in Europe and all over the world..." She was then interrupted by
her son, who tenderly informed her that she was not speaking close
enough to the mic. The song and dance which followed was stunning.
Bill T. Jones poised himself in a headstand as his mother began
to sing a heart-stopping blues melody. Her voice was emotionally
rich and full of intensity as she sang out a prayer to her God.
His body was powerful, twisting and turning, upside-down and right-side-up.
The piece was perfection, marrying a personal relationship to an
eternal struggle to find truth and happiness. The video-taped and
live audiences simultaneously burst into wild applause!
The final dance and
centerpiece of the evening, "Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger,"
again effectively married a specific and personal experience to
a much larger, complex issue. The live music of Daniel Bernard Roumain
was a narrative journey through time and space, accompanied at most
times by the reading of O'Connor's story by a male and a female
who moved onstage amidst the dancers.
The music for the piece
was brilliantly played (offstage) by Mairi Dorman (cello), Matt
Szemela (violin) and the composer himself (piano.) The reading featured
Susan Sarandon on the opening night, and was excellently executed
by Rachel Lee Harris and Ryan Hilliard for the performance I saw.
Liz Prince, the beloved
designer who costumes most of Jones's work, dressed the dancers
in suits with light colored shirts and suspenders. A video by Gregory
Bain made brief appearances inside a full-moon-shaped set piece
by Bjorn Amelan.
The story is classic,
concerning a caucasian boy and his ignorant grandfather who journey
to Atlanta so the boy can see the town where he was born. From the
moment they step onto the railroad platform we are introduced to
images and characters whose features are exaggerated, sometimes
to cartoon proportions, by the minds of the boy and his grandfather.
The age-old story of small-town mentality is portrayed through honestly
expressed fears and responses by both characters as they are exposed
to Atlanta's multi-cultural, multi-racial environment.The dancers
recreate scenarios without fully acting them out. The most interesting
part is the fact that black and white roles are completely irrelevant
and at moments that are narratively racially specific, the roles
are most often reversed. The company displayed its true colors,
a full spectrum of nuanced performance by individuals who are clearly
encouraged to explore their own diversity. I was reminded of my
younger self and the first time I was exposed to this dance company
-- as a ballet dancer I found sanctuary and inspiration in the diversity
acknowledged by Jones. Although the different body types have certainly
become less different over the years, Bill T. Jones is still a choreographer
who can be commended for cultivating individuals and not clones
of his own body type or movement style for his company.
Finally, I will say
that I enjoyed thoroughly this final piece of the evening -- that
is until the final moments; there seems to be a false ending. But
I must note, the effort of the dancers performing duets while petals
(or confetti?) fell from the sky seemed to fall on many deaf ears.
The audience as a whole appeared restless. We were like cups that
were already overflowing and could not appreciate the effort to
the fullest. This Is my only negative criticism of an otherwise
quite moving evening of performance.
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