The choreography performed by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company was stirring up debate long before dance critic Arlene Croce denounced the troupe's most recent work. "I have not seen Bill T. Jones' Still/Here and have no plans to review it," Croce stated in the opening salvo of a vitriolic December 1994 New Yorker column. She went on to label the multimedia dance piece "literally undiscussable" and "beyond the reach of criticism" because it incorporated words, pictures and gestures offered by terminally ill people for whom she could feel only pity. Apparently, Croce felt her pity would cause her critical faculties to wither.
But whoever had the job of composing headlines for the New Yorker during Christmas Week 1994 had a well-developed sense of irony, whether intentional or not. The title of Croce's attack, "Discussing the Undiscussable," actually explains why, for many people, Bill T. Jones' work continues to challenge and invigorate. In the 20 plus years since he began choreographing and dancing, it's been Jones' willingness to discuss the undiscussable that's driven his creation of fresh dance and performance art.
Jones' work, which began in the '70s with structuralist duets composed with his partner Arnie Zane (who died in 1988 from AIDS-related complications), has evolved into increasingly more complex and conceptual pieces that require a corps of dancers. Turning audience expectations about narrative time, history and art itself on their head, his dances have tackled the issues of sexuality, race, power and religion. In Still/Here, on-stage at the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater for two performances Friday and Saturday, Jones turns his sensibilities to the subject of death, or, more accurately, life in the face of death.
"First and foremost, I'm not a doctor or a therapist," notes Jones, speaking over the phone from Toronto. "I'm an artist who is trying to talk about things that are big and important to us all."
Things such as death. Though we are all going to die, few of us live with the specter of our mortality confronting us in the way people diagnosed with a terminal illness do. A man who has known for ten years that he's HIV-positive, Jones exists with both the fear and the keen sense of life's fragility that such a diagnosis engenders. Though very much alive, Jones, who recently turned 44, found that once his HIV status was known, people responded to him as if he were already dead. It was a form of dismissal that enraged him. "Most of us, with or without HIV, are burdened with the perception, justified or not, that being HIV-positive equals death," Jones wrote in his 1995 memoir, Last Night on Earth. "This I refuse to accept E. [Yet] how do I deal with fear, anger and pain? How can I find the strength to love, plan, create? How can I defeat the perception that I am an abnormality, cut off and doomed? To find the answers, I would go to the widest, most varied groups of travelers along the same road."
In 1992, Jones and media artist Gretchen Bender embarked on a series of survival workshops that took them to 11 cities in 18 months. They met with people who had faced or were facing life-threatening illnesses. Jones asked workshop members to answer questions about their experiences. Then he encouraged each person to create a self-portrait through movement. Bender videotaped the participants.
With this foundation of testimony, gesture and image, Jones set out to shape what would become a multilayered theatrical production blending his choreography, large-screen projections of Bender's videotapes, music by composer Kenneth Frazelle and rock guitarist Vernon Reid, taped singing by Odetta, costumes by Liz Prince and lighting by Robert Wierzel. The members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company -- known for varied body types (short, very tall, athletic, portly) that differ from the classical image of a dancer -- interpret the work. Jones himself doesn't appear in the piece.
As its title implies, the work is presented in two distinct parts. Where "Still" abstracts the language, movement and images of survivors in order to express a universal inner struggle, "Here" shows how people make sense of that struggle in the everyday world. True to Jones' relentlessly metaphoric methods, neither of the two parts conveys the testimony from the workshops in a traditional manner.
"I don't try to tell you what you should be understanding or getting from the work, but I lay it out for you like a painter or any abstract artist would," Jones notes. "[Since] I wanted to do [the piece] in the most intimate and personal means possible, I talked to real people, asking them to tell their stories. Now, their stories are interesting only as much as they have resonance in relation to any story. The form of the piece fractures those narratives purposely so [the dance] doesn't get pinned down, doesn't get too small."
Jones admits he could never have created such a large-scale rumination on the subject of life and death without the benefit of his collaboration with other artists. In fact, Jones has sought throughout his career to work with others. "Collaboration for an artist like myself is a way that I can find kindred spirits, sometimes quite different from myself," he points out. "Together, we make something greater than the sum of our parts."
For example, going against the stereotype of an autocratic choreographer, Jones often asks his dancers to work out an artistic problem. "The results come back, and I will take those results and it continues," he explains. "Maybe I'll bring in a third party and transmute those results further." Still, working so intimately with video in Still/Here required Jones to overcome what he terms "a blind spot. Arnie and I had done a lot of [video early on], but I think the feeling we had was that video and dance didn't mix because one would overshadow the other. But my friend Gretchen Bender is committed to [using] mass media as the most important way to cope with this century E and she encouraged me that video would work on the stage."
That kind of flexibility has served Jones well, enabling him to cross boundaries throughout his life. One of 12 children born to poor black migrant workers, he began studying dance in 1970 at the State University of New York in Binghamton. There he met and fell in love with Zane. The two forged a partnership that would last 17 years. Along with dancer Lois Welk, the couple ran the American Dance Asylum, a community of artists that devised multimedia dance performances, often drawing on "contact improvisation," a movement technique that combines tightly structured timing with improvisation. By 1982, having parted with Welk and moved to New York City, the two men formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. From "work rooted in our personalities," explains Jones in his memoir, "our choreography moved toward the depiction of a community, a society." Not long afterward, Zane took ill; Jones cared for him until Zane died.
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Although devastated by the loss of his partner, Jones continued to work, choreographing close to two dozen dances over the past seven years, including 1989's memorable, grief-inspired "Absence," dedicated to Zane's parents, and 1990's "Last Summer at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," a three-and-a-half hour multimedia tour de force that featured Jones' mother in a pivotal role.
Jones has yet to slow down. Even as Still/Here tours, he's been busy conceiving a series of dances to music composed by Kurt Schwitters, the late German Dadaist performance artist. The music, Jones explains, "is all presyllabic utterances in sonata form. It sounds like early 20th-century modernism, but it's very, very entertaining." He adds, laughing, that, "I'm making a dance to it as a way of being free of meaning for a while." Also planned are dances to Dylan Thomas' poetry and to music by composer Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder and artistic director of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
"I learned a lot from the survival workshops for the Still/Here project about being in the moment," Jones says about his own grappling with life in the face of death. "And it's really hard. It's a discipline. You don't get it once. You have to practice it every day. But what else are we here to do?"
Still/Here will be performed Friday, February 23, and Saturday, February 24, at the Wortham Center, Cullen Theater. 227-