by Susan Kepecs
The Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company returns to Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Sat., Feb. 14, after a nine-year absence. The company, named for master choreographer Bill T. Jones and his partner in life and dance, Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS in 1988, was founded in 1983; today it’s a major force in the world of modern dance. Jones, artistic director and choreographer for his own company, is a force in the broader scope of the performing arts, too – he does double duty as executive artistic director of New York Live Arts, formerly the legendary Dance Theater Workshop. Over the course of his career he’s won slews of awards and accolades – have a look: http://www.newyorklivearts.org/about/bill-t-jones.php
Like the late, great modernist of American ballet, George Balanchine, Jones has a penchant for the popular arts; several Tony awards twinkle in his crown, most recently the one he received for directing and choreographing the Afrobeat hit Fela!. But also like Balanchine, Jones’ primary realm is art high and pure.
Jones occupies his own niche in dance performance; his work shares little, save occasional rhythmic angularity, with the stark expressionism of the mid-twentieth century modern dancemakers, and his lovely, athletic creations are neither ballet nor postmodern, though they contain elements of both.
Jones is no stranger to the Wisconsin Union Theater, having performed here three times in the 1990s and twice in the ‘00s. All of those performances have revealed different sides of the artist. In a striking turnaround from his irate, insurgent works about AIDS and race relations of the 1990s, his 2002 repertory concert, with the Orion String Quartet live onstage, was lush and formal – in an interview I did for Isthmus before that event he described the program as being “about the relationship of dance and music to my heart.” His evening-length work from 2005, Blind Date (performed here in spring, 2006), was an activist work in a new vein, his chosen weapon against the neocons’ long war in Iraq. "What does it mean to be a world citizen? What's a conservative? What's a patriot? Why is liberal a bad word?" Jones asked then. He had his dancers run with these questions, developing characters and stories that he wove together to make the piece.
The Feb. 14 program, overarchingly titled “Play and Play: An Evening of Movement and Music,” is a return to formalism, though subtle undercurrents of social commentary run throughout. On the bill are three repertory works from different periods, featuring his current company with students from the UW-Madison Dance Department (who perform, I think – I’ve had slightly different reports on this – in two of the three dances) and live accompaniment by students from the UW-Madison School of Music.
“Spent Days Out Yonder” (2000), to the Andante from Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23, is reconstructed from the original – “an extended improvisation that’s in its fifth generation,” Jones says. The piece, an excerpt from a longer work titled “You Walk?,” was commissioned for an Italian festival; at the time its theme was billed as culture contact between the sixteenth century Italian explorers (Columbus was from Genoa, you know) and the natives of the New World, though it’s very hard to find that thread in this dance. Today Jones has dropped that description, calling “Spent Days” one of his pure music pieces.
“Continuous Replay” (1977) was, Jones says, “a solo that Arnie Zane made for himself that’s evolved over time. We did it as a duet for a while when he was alive, and once he did it with nine dancers. I revived it after he died.” The current version dates to 1991, though Jones says he’s reworking it yet again.
This work, set to a complex score that includes bits of Beethoven and silent spaces, was composed / arranged by contemporary dance composer Jerome Begin, director of Juilliard’s dance division. Part of “Continuous Replay” is usually done nude. But ever since Stuart Gordon’s hippie version of Peter Pan, staged at the UW Memorial Union Play Circle in 1969 – it contained a naked dance that caused a huge uproar in then-cow town Madison – the UW Board of Regents has had a policy banning nude students on stage. I’ve heard that Dance Department students will perform in this piece, so if that’s correct there’ll be costuming (of a minimal sort, I expect) where ordinarily there wouldn’t be.
The program ends with Jones’ ebullient signature work, “D-Man in the Waters” (1989, revised 1998). The D stands for company dancer Demian Acquavella, who, like Zane, died of AIDS. “I often accompany the work with a choreoraphic note by word artist Jenny Holzer – ‘in a dream you saw a way to survive, and you were full of joy,” Jones says. “The piece is an important teaching tool for new dancers to learn about Arnie Zane. In Madison we’re doing it with students from the Dance Department. We love to work with locals.”
Since this program is really a retrospective of Jones’ work, I asked him about his evolution as an artist by phone the other day; here’s what he had to say:
CulturalOyster: As an artist you’re something of a chameleon – you’ve done in-your-face activist works, lush formalism, narrative works. Where are you now?
Jones: I’m a 62-year old man, dealing with the things we deal with at that age; I’m also an artist who has a body of work behind him. I’m asking questions about why I make art and what I find interesting. I also wear several hats now, being the administrator not only of my company but of an ambitious theater [New York Live Arts] that supports the work of many different artists.
In terms of my own work, I’m a thinker. It’s always on my mind – what can my art do, how can it reflect the concerns I’ve had since I began my journey? I was at SUNY Binghamton in 1970; it was a revelation to study modern film there. I understood that artmaking is about perception, about putting one in touch with what one thinks and sees.
A company is hard to sustain over 30 years. I want the company to dance beautifully, to sing and speak beautifully. I want the dancers to be involved in their bodies but also to exchange the ideas of their era. Artmaking is participation in the world of ideas. When the dancers are dancing, are they able to understand where the music is coming from? Do they understand the history of this dance company, of Arnie Zane? Do they understand how dance and music have the power to change peoples’ lives? I think these are appropriate questions for a 62-year old dancer / choreographer / director to consider.
CulturalOyster: You once told me – I think this was in 2002 – that you were interested in the idea of show, don’t talk. And yet your latest piece, “Story/Time,” which premiered in New York last fall, is a play on John Cage’s 1958 work Indeterminancy, in which he read short stories aloud while pianist David Tudor played random selections from Cage’s compositions. You do that in “Story/Time” – you read short stories, selected at random a large number, while your dancers perform. So that’s an artistic evolution, yes?
Jones: “Story/Time” challenges Cage’s determinism, which also wanted to free us from our preconceptions about what art is, and that freedom is what drives me to this day. Is “Story/Time” evolution? Always, since my first concert, I’d be telling a silent story while dancing in a different, abstract way. The art was greater than the sum of its parts, and that still fascinates me. Now I want to be able to speak aloud, but on another channel to show movement. The audience is left with a delicious challenge of associations that come with gestures and words or groups of words. Sometimes surprising connections are made that are different from what’s being said. That’s why I remain interested in text and the potential of abstract movement – the more abstract, the better. I stay committed to abstraction in the choreoraphy – I want to know how that abstraction meets conceptions I have about thought, beauty, mortality, aging and power.
I’ll also be doing a public lecture about what we’re talking about – you’ve asked where I’m at right now, how life builds from one moment to another, how one keeps going. It’s important to talk about this in a university setting, where students are considering a life in the arts. But I’ve never been 62 before. I don’t know how I got from there to here. That’s what biographers are for.
That lecture – sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Directorate Distinguished Lecture Series committee and the Wisconsin Union Directorate performing arts committee –happens Thurs., Feb. 12, in Shannon Hall, 7:30 – 9 PM.