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Flash Review 1, 4-22: Me and Mr. Jones
Bill T. Struts His Psyche at the Shubert

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

CHICAGO--Bill as the big peacock -- cock a doodle doo! -- strutting the stage of his fabulousity -- presented in "The Breathing Show" at the Shubert Theater by Performing Arts Chicago, one of our city's leaders in presenting new directions in theater, music, and dance. Many of the players in the Chicago art world came to worship on this Good Friday and pay homage to the cult of Bill T. Jones, and were deeply affected by his performance. There was a standing ovation, they were touched and moved to tears; but I kept thinking: this time I am not falling in love with Bill as I usually do. He is not my rock star; he is not making me swoon. I saw him as very pretentious, overly intellectual, in a way guarded, careful and self-aware of his powers as an artist and performer; but as I wrote this Flash I learned that maybe that's the point and it is deeper than I thought.

The performance began with the fiddler (on the roof) Daniel Roumain, crossing the stage in a poignant walking violin solo. Roumain was understated in his performance persona but soundfully, soulfully rich and amazing. He was a tuneful fiddler who always turned the end into dissonance. I loved the moment early in the work when Bill (may I call him Bill? He invited us into such a congenial and personal dialogue in his speaking moments) was slowly moving his hands down from covering his face along his body, and at the same time the filmy white curtain rose to reveal the full space of the stage. It was a moment of covering the body and uncovering the performance space simultaneously, of down and up at once. I see this moment now as a larger metaphor for The Breathing Show as a whole, which I felt revealed to us Bill's thinking and ideas but not so much the passion and frailty of his fleshly self. I saw the Bill who makes iconic forms for us to contemplate the presentation of his body. I considered the harsh demands of solo performance, where the individual person must channel the greater forces of his or her world vision into his/her single body on the stage.

In this piece, Bill engaged us, the audience, in the intellectual presentation of his body contrasted with his discussion of the Romantics, of Nature, and of the Body as a part of Nature. However and also, he presented us with very Platonic concepts of spatial directions: the head moves forwards, backwards; the shoulder moves up, down. North, South, East, and West. He spoke about Schubert after dancing some delicate, whimsical dances to passionate lieder, saying that Schubert died at the early age of 33 after composing many many songs and musics. Now Bill, himself, well over 33 and having outlived many friends and peers, is Still/Here working, dancing, considering his body, no longer wishing to transcend his body, but investing in his garden, the actual garden around his house and the garden of his body.

Bill spoke of Romanticism, but I never saw him falling away into the recline and ecstasy of the Romantic, "natural" experience. My companion Jebediah spoke of the fiddler opening the show with his walk across the stage as being a symbol of tradition in precarious balance on the roof. Jebediah presented this idea as a metaphor for Bill balancing his many histories and trajectories. As a human being Bill tries to balance the intellectual, the artist, the aestheticized body/dancer, the modern dancer, a man, gay, black. He seems to be trying to find a way to be seen that does not stereotype him. I felt that I was invited to worship at the shrine of his personality, of his intellect, and of his dancing genius; but I was not personally moved. I thought, Wow he is really getting away with this! Jebediah says Bill has a thief's touch, you don't feel it but things are irrevocably changed after he touches you. Bill's touch is stealthy and powerful.

For me the most moving moment was phase 3 of his famous Floating the Tongue solo. He prefaced the work with an explanation of how he learned this Zen exercise of Floating the Tongue from a spiritual mentor because he wanted to learn to transcend his body. Then he tells us about how others have perceived his body/self, in this case giving him a job to be an Affiliate Artist in the '70s. He explains that he was chosen to "make the world safe for modern dance," to be a manly representative of modern dance at schools for privileged boys. One senses the stressful psychic friction of such a task. To be oneself and yet not, to present the richness of the art yet defuse the threat of gay/black/male dancer/artist identity politics. Bill apparently (unless I have the story totally wrong, which is quite possible) invented Floating the Tongue to be performed for his privileged boy audiences during Affiliate Artist gigs.

In this powerful piece, he performs a dance phrase three times. The first time he simply does the phrase, the second time he does the phrase while saying what the movements are: "feel the weight of the elbows, reach through the fingers, sit into the left hip, ass to the back of the auditorium" etc. Then the third time he says aloud the internal dialogue of the phrase, the symbols, the passing thoughts. Mama, Life and Death, "what does it mean to be Negro," "do not be afraid do not be afraid," "woman pushing a pram on Michigan Avenue today." Etc. He said, "do not be afraid" but never "I am scared." To my sense of things, it was deep and amazing, but there was always a censor at work, a self mediating the self. After mining a very personal and intense inner monologue for the performance, he presented himself to receive the audience's impressed applause. I had mixed feelings about clapping for a tour de force of the psyche, it felt cheap and shallow somehow. I still need to think more about this, longer than a Flash will allow.

Still, I felt this was the most Romantic moment of the whole performance, where Bill's body became a site of memory, of experience, of sensual experience, fear, pleasure, image, dream, desire, sadness. The second phase of this piece, the one where he mentions the body parts and the directions they go in, seemed to me to be where most of the rest of the performance actually resided. I sense that Bill has a dichotomy between his intellectual and his physical experience, and that he gets stuck in dismembering concepts of body parts in space.

After the show I turned to my ballet teacher, Anna Paskevska, and said, "I do not worship well at the cult of personality when there is no suffering." She said "Yes but give me purity any time." Watching "The Breathing Show," I perceived the falling away of the veil of artist, and I saw the artist as self-critical, the artful contextualizing of the work via thinking and idea and Platonic form; but never the surrender and the lostness of self in the bigger swirl and pool of life, of love, of the energy-moving shamanistic conjuring of dance. I experienced Bill as extremely proud, smart, beautiful, knowing and showing it, but never releasing fully into what I think of as the ecstatic dance experience. He even mentioned Isadora Duncan! But perhaps that is his very precious discipline. He refuses to be seen without having an internal eye open to how he is being seen. He refuses to be objectified.

In line with this idea, talking after the show with Jebediah, we spoke of the Romantic artists, of Byron and Mary Shelley and Frankenstein and the powerful intellect in the body composed of many parts -- we thought for a moment of Bill as a sort of Frankenstein (but not as a horror by any means!) as a body composed of many traditions that flow uneasily together. Jebediah said that he was moved, as he spoke he touched his solar plexus, he said that through the intellect he was led to emotion and was touched very deeply. I myself, perhaps it is my deficiency, I prefer to be intellectually awakened and moved via emotion and deep physical states.

With the press packet was provided a copy of the New York Times February 13 2000 article, "Hopes and Doubts in the Gestation of an I," excerpts of Bill's journal as he underwent the process of creating and performing "The Breathing Show." Searching for insight, I read the article after the show. I found it interesting that after seeing the performance I was still seeking information in the literal, verbal, intellectual realm. Usually I prefer to let the experience of the performance speak for itself, but in this case I was drawn to read and think more about the work, because I felt bad that I was so irritated at Bill for being a big ol' peacock while everyone around me was swooning on their couches. Perhaps this is Bill's big gift: that he can't help but bring us context, conflict, and deep thinking along with a full plate of dancing. Maybe it is not enough to see a great dance and go home with sweet thoughts. Maybe it is necessary, at this point in history and society, to be forced to down a vegetable that makes us think and discuss about not just the art, but who is making the art, and what have they been through in order to bring it before our complacent perceptions.

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