Standing over six feet tall, handsome, muscular, African-American, homosexual and HIV positive, dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones came to town this past week to teach us a few things. Despite a disarming smile and pleasantly patrician manner, there can be no questioning the intensity and sheer weight of Jones' words and movement.
Since his creation of the American Dance Asylum in 1973 at the State University of New York, Jones has been making numerous and significant contributions to the performing arts. On a mission to express his ideas of global tolerance and, more importantly, acceptance, he has choreographed and performed various works in nations all over the world. Commissioned by such modern dance and ballet companies as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Boston Ballet, Berlin Opera Ballet and Diversions Dance Company, Jones has demonstrated a solid commitment to diversity and complete social freedom. He is currently the Artistic Director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
With his troupe of 11 dancers, Jones held a lecture and demonstration at the Agassiz last Wednesday. During the hour and a half of dance and discussion, Jones and company brought out issues of race, sexuality and identity politics both physically and verbally. Despite the controversial subject matter, their obvious sense of humor kept the tone light and the discussion friendly.
"It didn't matter who danced with who..." Jones stated over and over and over again in an autobiographical poem that prefaced the program. His statement was tongue-in-check, referring to those societal restrictions that determine what partnering is "acceptable." But Jones and his dancers proceeded to disregard any such limitations. Their form of dance overcomes barriers of sociology and physiology, ignoring predefined gender roles and focusing wholly on the integrity of the movement. The company most effectively demonstrated this ideal in their performance of the first movement of "Soon," a duet created by Jones. The movement was performed three consecutive times by the three different couples: the first, a man and a women; the second, two women; and the third, two men.
Aside from the unquestionably comical aspect of this progression--which the third couple used to every advantage--Jones had a serious message to convey, a message that pervaded this lecture/demonstration for the Harvard community as well as the company's weekend performances at the Wang Center in Boston. Of greatest importance at the Wang Center in Boston. Of greatest importance was not gender or sexuality, nor was it race and ethnicity. Only choices, trust and interaction/reaction counted for the success of the dance. Jones posits as the most essential element of his philosophies of dance and life a rejection of social constructs and boundaries which foster inhibition and discourage difference.
Jones made clear at each performance that his purpose goes far beyond the goal of good entertainment. In fact, he became quite ruffled when his polite Harvard audience refused to "get riled up" by his clearly controversial style. His desire to shock his audience into a heightened consciousness was perhaps best evidenced by his solo "Last Night on Earth," which he performed at the Wang Center on Saturday. As the title suggests, the piece is largely autobiographical, or at least very personal. More performance art than traditional dance, the work was a combination of movement and verbal explanation. Anesthetically, its shock value could not be missed. Ferociously bright lights nearly blinded the audience at its commencement, and they faded revealing Jones clad only in a white chiffon miniskirt.
The dance itself was sparse and deliberate, concentrating far more on shapes, angles, lines and signs than on any sort of fluid or cohesive movement. Then he spoke. With each word carefully chosen and accompanied by a fittingly provocative gesture, Jones' performance guaranteed a reaction. At the close of this performance, he allowed for a question-and-answer period similar to the one held here on campus. Again, response was respectful--inoffensive and seemingly unoffended. Again, though hidden by that wonderful smile, Jones' disappointment, if not anger, was palpable. Were we, the audience, intimidated, fully accepting, or simply indifferent, he wondered aloud with a laugh. Did it really not matter "who danced with who" anymore? Had Jones accomplished his mission at Harvard and in theater-going Boston?
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