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Bill T Jones Review

Bill T Jones: Answering the call, throwing down the gauntlet

Wednesday, March 25, 2009 at 11:14am

It is humbling to watch genius unfold itself. And that is the what the masterful artist (not just choreographer) Bill T. Jones does. He allows the best effort unfold in each one of his multi-talented collaborators. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company presented “A Quarreling Pair” at the Kennedy Center last night, and it was a dizzying ride which was split-your-sides funny at one moment and gut-wrenchingly familiar and sad the next. You are spell-bound from the first moment.

Set in a vaudevillian framework, “A Quarreling Pair” is loosely based on Jane Bowles’ play describing the lives of two puppet sisters. Jones’ quirky imagination comes to life in an equally quirky set by Bjorn G. Amelan that includes tape/string that creates a diamond projecting into the audience, a (puppet) stage within the stage setup, and a video that serves as part social commentary/part vaudeville sign cards. The live musicians create an effective sound score that is strident and aching. The costumes are as whimsical as Jones’ imagination and reinforce the doll-house effect. The performers dance, clown, sing, parody and in the most surprising moments emerge simply as a fellow human being struggling through life.

Jones’ is nothing if not a story teller, and he tells this story of two puppet sisters living in their house with a string as their wall of separation. Harriet is the one with the small heart, who is content to live her entire life in the confines of their home and quarrels. Rhoda is the dreamer who wants to get away, who has a heart too big to be a home maker, and wants to explore the world. The story then is the tension between the small heart and the big heart, and their twisted love for each other as each one travels down their chosen path.

Rhoda leaves, and is soon caught up in the rat race of humanity starting off as a lounge singer. Jones’ uses the dancers to create a simple walking pattern simulating busy streets in any big city. Rhoda’s attempt to make a connection with the dancers is at times funny and more often sad. No sooner does she latch on to someone that they change the pace and direction. Rhoda ends up, ultimately, inexorably alone. She wanders about and ends up in Mexico, falling in love with a woman who turns out to be a man in drag, and eventually trades this abusive situation for the one she left behind at home.

The plot line is broken up by astute readings of the play. Bulbul comes on as a carnival dancer turning cartwheels and leaping straight up into the air like a trapeze artist. She is equally strong as the men she dances with and daring in her blind leaps into their arms. Two men dressed in underwear enact a showing-off bout with flying jumps and sensitive partnering straight out of look-what-I-can-do games from a playground. And the walking pattern re-emerges to remind you of the endless human rat race. The work is about missed connections as much as it is about making connections with strangers. As a disillusioned Rhoda wanders off still in search for the ever elusive success, her sister Harriet wanders in, milk in hand and never quite connecting with Rhoda.

Video supports stage pictures unobtrusively, serving both as a social commentary, and a magnifying lens of the humor and horror of humanity. Gender is performed, performance is performed and nothing is sacred. Politically astute Jones queers the stage, the dancers, the text and the performance space. The fourth wall is broken often with musicians crossing into the dancers’ world, dancers singing, and a chorus seated in the theater that sings along or catcalls the performers throughout the night. While you are disarmed and laughing at the antics unfolding on stage, he wraps his hand around your heart and makes you gasp as he squeezes it with sorrow.

Jones is a master of multi-disciplinary work, and reaps the outcome of a lengthy and in-depth investment of time, resources and thought in this wonderful work. The evening is a resounding yes, a yes to camp, a yes to being moved, a yes to move, a yes to entertain, and an emphatic yes to being human with all the messiness, sorrow, and joy that it entails. It was an evening of exhilarating physical theater. And if anyone doubts for a moment that art can be entertaining and thought provoking at the same time, Jones shows us how to do it masterfully–and challenges others to do the same.

***End of Review***
***Begin Gush***
Jones’ evening length performance gave me hope that modern dance in the US can survive and that it can evolve. I felt a cathartic release that almost made me physically sick from the power and genius at hand. It was also heart warming to see that a collaborative/commune-like approach to creating art can succeed without watering down the end result. I hope all of us can tread in the giant footsteps he is creating for us to follow. Jones’ takes the exact opposite approach as Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto, and shows that you can still arrive at works that are sheer genius. What luck that modern dance can embrace both Rainer and Jones and give us this richness that is so purely and unabashedly American.

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