Monday, November 12, 2007

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company-Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

I love that Bill T. Jones is a true chameleon, constantly shifting and impossible to pigeon-hole. As soon as the critics think they have him figured out, he changes. One minute, he is a genuine post-modern choreographer crafting dances focused on form and devoid of content. Then, he is experimenting with interdisciplinary collaborations between dance and other media (text, song and video). Next, he morphs into a post-post-modernist (if that is even a word) attempting to reconcile the chasm that has been created between structure and subject (incidentally, which he helped to create). During this post-post-modern phase, Jones became one of the creators and authorities on deconstructed narrative. This pairs largely abstract movement with a reduced conceptual framework in an effort to examine new ways that form and content can co-exist. Currently, another choreographic persona is emerging and in his most recent work, Chapel/Chapter, Jones injects himself into yet another category: dance theater.

Dance theater is still a relatively new choreographic genre that remains closely tied to the German school of choreography (where it is referred to as Tanztheater). This is where it first emerged with Kurt Jooss and continues today under the auspices of Pina Bausch and William Forsythe. This form of dance mixes story and structure together with very specific objectives and intentions, making its treatment of the narrative and its exploration of movement distinctive.

In dance theater, the story is driven by themes from the darker side of humanity: indifference, abuse, rage, and violence. With this serious subject matter, dance theater pieces make no attempt at explanation, justification or rationalization. In fact, dance theater works deliberately throw these behaviors in the audience’s face. The purpose is simply to immerse the audience in the reality of darkness and allow them to feel the unresolved emotions surrounding it. Bill T. Jones’ treatment of the narrative in Chapel/Chapter is a textbook example of dance theater. The topic of the piece is violent death told through three stories: 1) a planned suicide, 2) a random killing of an entire family and 3) an accidental murder. All three plotlines are presented to the audience (through text, song, gesture and movement) as plain and simple descriptions; unfeeling and eerily calm. Neither remorse, nor a desire for redemption were present; just blunt accounts of participation in these three deaths. There was no explanation for the crime, no justification of actions and no rationalization of conduct; there was only the darkness of death.

Jones also followed the tanztheater convention of repetition in choreography. One of the most famous choreographers associated with this genre, Pina Bausch, has demonstrated that repetition has a dual property when juxtaposed with dark conceptually-based choreography. Initially, repetitive movement sequences help to emphasize the brutality of the story, but, after significant repetition, they become an anesthetic for disturbing material. This was especially apparent in the storyline focusing on a killer’s attack on a family in their home. In the choreography, the perpetrator continually performs a choking gesture, resulting in the demise of each of his victims. At first, this was brutally shocking, but after seeing it multiple times during the piece, it numbed the brutality without erasing it.

I love this company, mostly because I never know what to expect when I am seeing new material. So many dance companies are predictable and avoid taking risks in their repertory. Dance should be the opposite; it is all about experimentation and moving outside of your comfort zone. Bill T. Jones has understood this from the moment he began choreographing. With Chapel/Chapter the elusive innovator strikes again.

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