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Choreographic provocateur Bill T. Jones has created new dialogues in dance arts from every physical angle and emotional perspective. He is not to be couched or crowded. His docu-dances are adventurous and dark, often like a great American novel, filled with unlikely heroes and populous intimacies. He makes artistic statements so sensational that the New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce once pronounced Still/Here, his courageous choreographic diatribe about AIDS, cancer and MS, as completely outside of her critical assessment. Croce thought the themes rendered it “victim art.” Essentially she reviewed it without seeing it, and consequently everyone else wasn’t going to miss it.
That work was a sell-out sensation at the Annenberg a decade ago, and Jones also played to a packed house in his solo, The Breathing Show, at the Perelman in 2002. Consider the spectacle of a single dancer in his 40s, HIV-positive for many years, commanding the stage for 45 minutes with unflagging choreographic breadth and performance clarity— two qualities that, unfortunately, were sparse in his 75-minute 2006 work Chapel/Chapter, performed last month at the Annenberg on two successive nights.
Jones’s company rightly appears unofficially smack in the middle of Dance Celebration's “Pioneers and Innovators” series because he is certainly both. But he brought along tepid material, albeit front-loaded with themes uncommon on the dance stage, even ripped from sensationally brutal headlines.
Borrowing fodder from TV
Obviously it takes artistic courage to tell three separate overlapping stories of murder and child abuse, as Jones does in Chapel/Chapter. But the cumulative effect struck me as an exploitive device— the stock in trade of TV news outlets and now, apparently, the fodder for Jones as well.
The third story is a tragic reminiscence of dancer Charles Scott, whose friend committed suicide in front him on a camping trip when they were teens. These scenes are the most sensitively handled and in fact ignite Jones’s most vivid choreography, with intriguing inverted combinations that express turmoil and confusion and strong characterizations by the dancers. But by the third depiction, Jones choreographs himself out with yogic freezes and predictable layouts.
Too clever, too manipulative
No doubt Jones knows how to move dancers hypnotically around a stage. Even his long prologue of dancers in orange jumpsuits mulling around a prison yard has you hanging on every communal move, aggressive or passive. But Chapel/Chapter lacks the improvisational spirit of The Breathing Show or the purposeful narrative synergy of Still/Here. It fails not because of its themes of psychosis, murder and forensic pathology but for its fragmented, too-clever, manipulative structure.
Jones’s religious iconography and pathological cultural need to “confess” seemed more cynical than ironic. The mind-numbing voice-overs reciting court transcripts, jailhouse interviews, police forensics and confessionals of the crimes is like a parody of “CSI.” I wondered if this piece would have struck me differently without the Boston Strangler text and simply scored to the great music played by cellist Christopher Antonio William Lancaster, with guitarist Lawrence “Lipbone” Redding. (The audience loved that growling concerto for electric cello.)
Devoted dancers, misused
The biggest disappointment is how Jones under-uses and misuses his dancers, who otherwise deserve high points for their commitment to this material. They lock into any logical and complete phrasing that Jones inserts. An explosive sequence occurs in an eight-dancer kaleidoscope that keeps blooming and breaking up. But mostly the dozen dancers are thrown in and yanked out of fragmented dance scenarios. This might be interesting in itself, but Jones’s inventions remain ponderous, even tentative.
Chapel/Chapter seems like a complete commercially artsy indulgence from a great choreographer. Even if Jones can’t reach the stunning scope he achieved in Still/Here and other completed works, I look forward to his breathing again.
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