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Henry Baumgartner

Bill T. Jones Picks Up the Keys

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Body Against Body (two programs)
New York Live Arts
September 16 through 25, 2011

The Jones/Zane company in "Continuous Replay" . Photo by Julia Cervantes.

A few months ago the well-known dance venue Dance Theater Workshop took the unprecedented step of merging with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company; the new entity is called New York Live Arts, and the theater is just the same as it was. It presented its inaugural events this September, featuring the Jones/Zane company in "Body Against Body," two programs drawn from the early years of Jones and Zane’s collaboration, work from the 1970s and early ’80s that, in some cases, had not been seen since it was new. All the choreography is credited jointly to Jones and Zane, except for "Duet x 2," which is by Jones.

Most of the pieces were duets--intended originally, of course, to be danced by Jones and Zane in person. But Zane died many years ago, and Jones was not performing in these works, so they were passed on to a new generation of dancers. You could often imagine the way Jones and Zane, especially Jones, would have looked in these dances--even if you hadn’t seen the duo perform them, back in the day (as I hadn’t)--yet the excellent younger dancers very much put their mark on the works. But without Jones, who famously can make any material whatsoever look wonderful, occasional longueurs became apparent.

Program A included "Monkey Run Road" from 1979 and "Valley Cottage: A Study," dated 1980/81. In "Monkey Run Road," Talli Jackson and Erick Montes wheel around a wooden box with a tongue-shaped opening in the top. The pleasantly susurrous music is by Helen Thorington, who provided scores for several of these early pieces. Under the influence of the title, I supposed at times that I was seeing depictions of simian behavior. But then fragments of a story in voice-over, repeated by the dancers, suggested something about three boys on an island, so perhaps that was what we were seeing. Or perhaps not.

"Valley Cottage" was performed by a different cast at each performance; I saw it done by two women, Shayla-Vie Jenkins and Jenna Riegel. The score, again by Thorington, is a collage of sounds and voices that sound like someone twirling the radio dial with the volume up. The dancers start by marching with squarish steps around the edges of the stage, but this eventually turns into big, creamy, luxurious dancing from Jenkins--was this Jones’s part?--contrasted with the lighter, quicker Riegel. Jenkins recites what sounds like a letter, perhaps from Jones, to an old friend or lover who is now a Columbia professor. Mysterious, to be sure, but it was fun to watch.

The other program started with "Duet x 2," from 1982, which is in fact a pair of duets, danced (without music) by LaMichael Leonard Jr. with, successively, Antonio Brown and Talli Jackson. The dancers burst in through a pair of double doors like those that lead into the saloon in old Westerns, and again move in square or straight-line patterns that give way to running, gesticulating, and eventually dancing. Some way along, Brown disappears and is replaced by Jackson. I’m afraid this piece struck me as extremely long.
Of the four duet works, the one that made the strongest impression was "Blauvelt Mountain" (1980), performed by two wonderful dancers, Paul Matteson and Jennifer Nugent. I imagined I was seeing a portrait of a relationship, perhaps Jones’s and Zane’s--or perhaps I was just getting this impression from Matteson and Nugent and the way they took possession of the dance. At any rate, what seems like alternately affectionate and rejecting behavior recurs repeatedly. Little routines increase in intensity until they dissolve in chaos. Often the dancers walk about tossing individual words back and forth at one another, like a game of word association. The music, once again by Thorington, often devolves into vague sounds on the edge of silence, which helps give a strange, mystical clarity to the piece.

Paul Matteson and Jennifer Nugent. Photo by Paul B.Goode.

Both programs included performances of "Continuous Replay," a more populous piece from 1977 (revised by Jones in 1991) that has been revived a few times over the years; each time it sticks in the mind, thanks to all that bare skin. Erick Montes, as "the clock," appears first, nude, to a reprocessed-sounding excerpt from "Le Sacre de printemps"; it stops and he runs offstage, as if it had all been some terrible mistake. But out he comes again, in silence, still nude. Others appear, one by one, men and women, also nude, performing a series of identical motions. They move slowly forward on a narrow strip of light at the back of the space, as others rush past them. They begin sporting various bits of clothing--underwear, or perhaps a biker’s helmet, or a hoodie, or maybe just a cell phone. The cast for this piece includes not only the entire company of nine, but numerous guest artists, a different list for each performance. The score, by John Oswald, who was on hand to perform it and also to join in the dance, collaged various quotations from the classics. Throughout the piece, performing areas are defined by strips of lighting, crisply provided by Robert Wierzel. As the piece progresses, the performers move to the right of the stage, then to the front. A friend remarked that they looked like a bunch of naked commuters.

The nudity in the piece certainly grabs one’s attention. But it also seems somehow to raise the stakes; in emphasizing how different this set of actions is from the rest of ordinary existence, it underlines the seriousness of the performance. Nudity has, of course, a certain erotic appeal, and this of course ought to be celebrated; further, from a more strictly aesthetic point of view, there is the fascination of watching a dancer’s muscles moving under his or her skin (you see some of this when dancers are wearing clothes, but far more easily when they don’t). But above all, there is that intensifying effect, the almost sacral quality of nude performance. I guess that’s why witches favor the practice. It sometimes seems a pity that most concert dance is performed with clothes on.



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