Bill T. Jones hardly ever makes dances that are merely pretty to look at. His audiences are more likely to be confronted with words and images, delivered along with the movement, that refer to provocative political and social ideals. “Confronted” will be the operative word when the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company brings its latest and arguably most political work, the evening-length “Blind Date,” to challenge McCarter audiences on Tuesday, May 16.
Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman describes the piece as “a raw treatise on weakness and strength, questions and certainty in a climate where personal expression of all kinds is increasingly scrutinized. It reflects the confusion, anger, and yearning of its creator, and does not lead to any kind of easy understanding.”
Jones and his late partner, Arnie Zane, formed the company in 1982; Zane died in 1988. Jones has created more than 50 works for his own company, has had numerous commissions for other companies, and has collaborated with such artists as Toni Morrison, Max Roach, and Jessye Norman. Several of his works have been filmed for television. Among Jones’ prestigious awards was his MacArthur fellowship in 1994, and his memoirs, “Last Night on Earth,” were published the following year.
Jones has moved from far left to a centrist position, suggests New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante, who describes “Blind Date” as “the sort of composition that might have sprung from the forces of the Democratic National Committee were they inclined to think in pas de deux and counterpoint.”
Subtlety is, indeed, what the arts require, Jones told an interviewer last month. “The art I want to make can be in your face, but its message has got to be demonstrating something a bit more provocative and persuasive. To say that war is wrong is a non-event. It’s a political statement, but it’s boring, stupid. To say that racism exists, what’s the point? You don’t just shout slogans, but you have to demonstrate something that people feel in their guts. It doesn’t always succeed, but that’s what I’m going after.”
Here are three examples of how, in “Blind Date,” Jones tries to get to that gut-level:
– A dancer, costumed as a yellow duck to lure passers-by into a Harlem eatery, gets recruited into the Army, and duck images become military casualties.
– A voice reads from Leviticus, “Do not have sexual relations with your father’s sister,” while the dance movement evokes heterosexual and homosexual activity. Why, Jones seems to be asking, do we abide by some Biblical proscriptives and not by others?
– One at a time, at random moments, dancers shout “Me” and start to fall. Everyone rushes to that person’s aid. Sometimes the faller gets caught in time to avoid a “face plant,” sometimes not.
Jones is frank about his polemic art. All works of art, he claims, including “Swan Lake” and the symphonies of Beethoven, are political.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Tuesday, May 16, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. A new evening-length dance, “Blind Date.” $39