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Flash 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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