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Flash Review, 12-04: Casting
Lincoln, as proposed by Jones

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in Jones's "Serenade/The Proposition." Photo by and copyright Julie Lemberger.

By Melinda Lee
Copyright 2009 Melinda Lee

NEW YORK -- The long canon of impressionistic dance docu-dramas in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company repertory brings us from "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" (1990) to Jones's recent trilogy commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, of which "Serenade / The Proposition" was the first. Premiered in 2008 and seen November 14 at the Joyce Theater, the work employs alternately cryptic/didactic meta-narrative through sung and spoken text, technical prowess and prosaic grand gesture, and seamless media integration into set and score, all of which are signatures of the company's work. In semblance of form, "Serenade / The Proposition" is not much different from recent others; perhaps to its benefit, the work appears less hard-hitting than previous examples, taking the excellence of its multiple production and performance elements and letting them ride together in a gentler kind of drama.

There is a sense of possibility in this work, rather than resistance, a kind of dreaminess related to historical and personal memory. While the work often treads the line of overeager sentimentality, strongly palpable influences of each dancer's personal narrative within the choreography and production design make the stakes feel invested and emotionally sincere, without urgency. The company members seem to have chosen the nature of their own casting, reflected by voice-over recordings of their perceptions of outsidership and alienation inside the sound score, designed by Sam Crawford, played over the dense live music composed and performed by Jerome Begin, Lisa Komara, and Christopher Lancaster. The design theme of 'framing' and the choreographic structure of the dancers running into repeated line-ups of statuesque poses brings to mind 19th-century portraiture and casts the company as animated archetype (in the sense of legacy, not impersonation) -- this structure is in some ways cliché, but then again, anything postural from the 19th century kind of is today. The viewers are drawn to questions of who each person is, to their own history, and to who, exactly, is this company; we are led by the repeated text structure, "This story is about someone born in 1982... 1867... [insert year]" and by inflections of the performers' personalities into their gestures and costuming to ask, "Whose story is this?" and to know that the point is that it is each of theirs. But is it ours?

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in Jones's "Serenade/The Proposition." Photo by and copyright Julie Lemberger.

Choreographed by Jones with associate artistic director Janet Wong in collaboration with the dancers, this one work seems to have multiple pieces layered into it -- perhaps one a poetic "Serenade," another the intermediary slash, yet another the more politicized "Proposition." As a harmonious layering of sensation into metered structure, the movement choreography of this work did not fail to stun and satisfy. Usually masters of poly-jointed cross/jux/leap/strike modern dance virtuosity in hyperdrive, the company?s performers demonstrated a dexterity and co-dependence that was both inventive and intuitive, particularly during small group partnering sequences. The range of contact explored between bodies -- points of connection, kinds of surface correspondence, multiple opportunities for cause and effect -- were immensely gratifying to watch.

Mediating movement with theatrical meaning were impressive visuals: smart video projection design (also by Wong) and artful Civil War-inspired costuming enhancing line, momentum, historical theme and character, by Anjia Jalac (with additional credit to the company's resident designer, Liz Prince). Subtle red stripes accented the costuming's monochrome/blue-white palate; we come to realize these accents are made of red duct tape, and when the towering Antonio Brown removes his jacket to reveal a red striped vest, the image then becomes clear of a shattered, disintegrated American flag. Broad skirts layering petticoat and tattered-edged rags brought added weight and suspension to the women's flowing entrances on and off stage, as well as highlighted the individuality of each performer. I-Ling Liu's high-necked dress brought her lithe extensions to even greater otherworldly possibility; Asli Bulbul's svelte black bodice crafted for her an image as a mystic, a half-abstraction, adding to her potent performance as a kind of prophetess who with raised flexed foot and outstretched hand, pivoting, revolves the world around her to see and know all.

What 'Proposition' is on the agenda, and when we get to vote on it, is never quite made clear. Two suited vocalists at podiums flank the Joyce stage, one delivering oratory and the other song, framing the symmetrical freestanding roman columns by Bjorn Amelan that create an image of a stately commons or the White House itself (between and in front of which the dance occurs). Flame-haired vocalist Lisa Komara occasionally echoes actor Jamyl Dobson's texts in unexpected operatic asides that take the image of political press briefing or newscast to a new level of the absurd. Like the spoken text itself (more like a litany, excerpted from various historical speeches and addresses, with original text by Jones), this framing image seems overly purposeful. Without such pointed references to politics or religion it wouldn't fairly be a BTJ/AZ work, nor perhaps would it be able to draw our perception of this work's historical inspirations into contemporary association. Yet as theater, this barrage from a pulpit leaves absent an avenue for the audience to feel implicated or participatory within a work about the very man who revolutionized democracy as it was once known. Instead, as a solitary demonstration of protest, a half broad-suited, half bare-shouldered Leah Cox enters the stage alone to lie still inside a vermilion pool of light following video projections of the 'White House' burning in flames. This is one of few moments of rest inside a relentless choreography, and makes the powerful statement that sometimes the strongest response to crisis is intentional non-doing, all the more so for it's being unspoken.

Like many of the company's theatrical devices, the shaping of the role of protagonist Paul Matteson (who plays Lincoln in later parts in this trilogy) follows traditional stage conventions but prompts the question of what it may mean to and of how to construct the post-modern tragedy in dance. Opening the work with a solo in casual contemporary costume, Matteson shifts from a dancer's moving image in his charismatically contemplative and lofty style to a theatrical one of the heroic everyman, eventually stripped to his briefs and standing for a curiously long time before the audience -- curious for drawing an uncomfortable association of white male as a blank canvas and normative 'neutral.'  Matteson later embodies the role of the chorus leader, clothed by other members of the company and usurped into the crowd, and still later the role of the spokesman, transgressing the divide between 'historical' and 'contemporary' worlds by being the only dancer to step forward onto the podium to recite text. As he is the only character in this dance-drama who undergoes narrative change, it almost seems like he will either have to die or to save them all, as is often the fate of the lead chorus member or hero. It turns out to be the latter. In a remake of the exercise of 'trust falling,' various members of the company during a full cast section take turns at falling into space, with Matteson alone throwing himself with full aerial assault to pitch his body beneath theirs. Successfully creating rough-edged tension and suspense in an otherwise almost too-perfect production, Matteson's tripping over himself in urgent reaction doesn't just demonstrate risk, or physical impossibility, as the BTJ/AZ aesthetic tries hard to convey, but sets up a structure for performing human behavior in extremis that creates a resonance with the universally human experiences that join all of us together, and that exemplify them.

"If we insist on telling the same stories again and again... we will become them," writes Jones, and "Serenade / The Proposition" rests in the viewer's imagination not only as a chapter of this choreographer's story but ultimately as the ongoing question of what constitutes a company -- keeping in good company? a regiment, a battalion? all the people in this room? -- and the story of the becoming of the company of people that makes this United States of America. As a master-minding display of multiple subjectivities, this kind of work brings to mind nationalist companies that embody the conflict of identity within a citizenship -- I think of Batsheva Dance Company, particularly in the work "Three" (seen November 15, 2007 ) -- and of conceptual choreographers who propel their work with a similarly rigorous questioning of selfhood; I think of Tere O'Connor, whose newest work, "Wrought Iron Fog," premiered not a block away from 'Serenade / The Proposition' in the same week (at Dance Theater Workshop, where I saw it November 13). In a 2006 conversation (published online in Movement Research's quarterly "Critical Correspondence"), O'Connor asked of himself and another choreographer, "What is coming from an internal source, and how does that relate to the moment you're living in?" I saw "Serenade / The Proposition" as coming very much from that vein of questioning, one that highlights the transfixing perplexity of how to make performances, whether as dance, theater, spectacle, or tragedy, that are both personally specific and socially/universally resonant and communicable as such. "That's where I think there's a drama in it, that it's so persistent," O'Connor continued, "You insist on it, and insist on it." Jones and O'Connor display different masteries of form, deriving from very different inspirations, but to the pleasure and provocation of their audiences both are propelled by performing subjectivity again and again. Within Jones's "Serenade /The Proposition," through that insistence an empty space still exists for an imaginary figure to stand dimly lit in the middle of the audience, watching all that is somehow simultaneously disharmonious and cooperative on stage as in life, to voice the multitudes of our subjectivities, seated, present, waiting.

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