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  • Sincerely DancingBill T. Jones's Sleight-of-Hand
  • MJ Thompson (bio)

On a rainy night in January 2002, I took a train uptown to meet a friend outside Lincoln Center. After a strange autumn, when no performance seemed as compelling as the dramas unfolding on New York City streets, the theatres were suddenly full again and it was with a certain amount of relief that a crowd gathered to see the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in concert with the Chamber Music Society. Previews in the Village Voice and the New York Times had been clear about what we would see: after years of anger and politics, wrote one journalist, Jones was reported to be "searching [...] for beauty" (in Perron 2002:B6; see also Jowitt 2002, and Greskovic 2002).

These words became a road map to understanding Jones's new work, repeated in various publications and ostensibly taken at face value. Yet, who would argue that earlier and controversial works like Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin or Still/Here were not beautiful? Nevertheless, his often-quoted perspective became the reigning lens through which to approach the new material.

Arguably the most articulate choreographer of this generation, Jones wields the English language as fiercely as he does dance and gesture. His words have come to us in the countless interviews, lectures, and published writings he has offered over a career spanning 25 years, as well as in his consistent use of text in his performances. Fueled in part by the necessity of response to the critical reaction his work has compelled; in part by his interest and immersion in performance art as distinct from dance; and in part by a unique commitment to grappling with the history of the body and to dancing the discourses of power as they play out in America, Jones talks. And, in each instance, these words constitute an equally significant performance field for Jones. Yet, for viewers, they have posed an enormous challenge to move with facility between the familiar and pre-sumedly legible realm of spoken language and the more enigmatic realm of the moving, dancing body.

In the case of the Lincoln Center performance, what did we see? The night began with Verbum, a beautiful if banal dance set to Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major, Opus 135. Eight dancers performed idiosyncratic gestures alongside the classic extensions, leaps, and falls of a ballet/modern hybrid. Dressed in silver, they moved through and around a silver set designed by Bjorn Amelan, which consisted of three large cutouts that appeared alternately as portals or ciphers, hearts or women's genitalia. The dancing was lovely, and abstract. There was a renewed engagement with contact improv, a foundational technique for Jones from his college [End Page 75] days at SUNY Binghamton with American Dance Asylum. Yet, dancers played, pushed, pulled each other along and into mannered moves that quoted European court dances and folkloric forms such as Scottish dancing—the dancing body as cultural archive, gesture as a repository for history. Perhaps most intriguing, given the title, was the conspicuous absence of the spoken or written word; in fact, the work eschewed all the conventions of dance theatre—direct address, narrative, and mime; overt articulations of meaning; the expanded use of objects as props or otherwise less ambiguous symbols—that we'd come to associate with Jones.


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Danny Kubert and Ayo Janeen Jackson (Plate 1) and Toshiko Oiwa (Plate 2) in Verbum (2002) at Sao Paulo Opera, Brazil. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. (Photos © Mila Petrillo; courtesy of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company)

A second work, World Without/In, returned to more familiar aesthetic ground as Jones conjured a magical mystery tour through a chaotic landscape of fl owers, geometric planes, and archetypal characters. Amelan's set was a pyramid-like staircase in gleaming metal. As members of the Orion String Quartet interacted directly with the dancers, various characters came to life—the Money Tree, the Patron, the Kronos figure, and so forth—to enact a drama of life and death, the importance of the memento, and perhaps even a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4715
Print ISSN
1054-2043
Pages
pp. 75-86
Launched on MUSE
2005-06-08
Open Access
No
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