Bill T. Jones

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This column by Nicole Plett was prepared for the

April 11, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Nicole Plett

Since the first light of the 20th century, American

modern dance has been the world’s envy. (Even when American dancers

had to travel the world to find their audiences.) So it was with a

mixture of astonishment and greedy pleasure that I sat at New York’s

City Center last Wednesday evening, watching the incomparable Merce

Cunningham Dance Company perform two Cunningham masterworks while

mentally preparing for this week’s Princeton appearances by Bill T.

Jones and the Mark Morris Dance Company. So much of the energy and

inventiveness of our dance generations since 1950 has been fueled

by Cunningham’s creative journey.

The dances I saw — "Summerspace" of 1958 and

"Biped"

of 1999 — separated by more than 40 years, will doubtless prove

the high point of my year’s dance watching. Though many words have

been wasted on defining "art," I myself look for its capacity

to give us something more and something different on each encounter.

And in the case of the almost-antique "Summerspace" and

"Biped"

(which I saw at its premiere), the "more" and the

"different"

I experienced in these two dances almost bowled me over.

Those who still associate Cunningham with terms like "cool"

and "cerebral" should return again to these almost achingly

beautiful dance landscapes. This year "Summerspace," set

within

Robert Rauschenberg’s multi-colored pointillist dappled backdrops,

with dancers clad in matching dappled unitards, seemed to be all about

a summer story. The clear, clean lines of a dancer’s raised arm or

a deep diagonal lunge shot the stage with an energy akin to shafts

of sunlight sifting through foliage. I saw dancers spinning with both

arms extended to the sides and thought of dandelion seeds airborne

on a summer breeze. And yet these were simply men and women on the

stage, radiant in their dignity.

The magnificent and imposing "Biped" likewise tells a humanist

story. Set in a box of light behind a filmy black scrim, dancers in

shining, iridescent tank suits appear, as if by magic, from three

sides of the stage to parade, gambol, and strut like Olympian gods.

From moment to moment, animated color line drawings, distilled from

filmed movement, loom before, above, and around the dancers, ghostly

reminders of their very real mortality.

The next day, Mark Morris opened our telephone

conversation

by remarking that missing Merce Cunningham’s annual New York season

was just about the only cloud on his otherwise sunny horizon. At age

44, as he celebrates a triumphant 20th anniversary season at the

Brooklyn

Academy of Music Opera House and the company’s move into its first

permanent home studio, Morris has gradually morphed from the bad boy

of modern dance to join the ranks of its reigning masters.

Fortunately,

this Seattle-raised choreographic master hasn’t lost any of his

warmth,

wit, or accessibility. And it seems that he, like the 82-year-old

Merce Cunningham, has no plans to retire from performing.

Morris’s success with audiences here and abroad has brought him a

level of support enjoyed by few American modern dance companies. His

administrative staff has just moved into the office floors of the

company’s new, $6.2 million multi-purpose facility in the Fort Greene

neighborhood of Brooklyn, across the street from the Brooklyn Academy

of Music where studios will be completed by June.

Not only has Morris inherited an innovative dance tradition from

Cunningham,

he also notes that his first company concert, in 1980, took place

at the Cunningham Studio in Westbeth. "I rented a studio and put

on a show," he says playfully.

Now, having just concluded their three-week retrospective in New York

in March, Morris and his company of 18 dancers and five musicians

have already hit the road with performances, in Illinois, Oregon,

and California. The company returns to the East Coast to McCarter

Theater and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark in April,

then proceeds to Virginia before concluding in mid-May in Seattle.

Mark Morris Dance Group’s McCarter concert features five works

performed

to live music on Tuesday, April 17, at 8 p.m.

"It’s business as usual," says an only-slightly wearied Morris

from his hotel room, on tour in Eugene, Oregon. "That’s what we

do. A couple of days off, then on the road again."

"We’re very fortunate. We work all the time, we have good houses

and we’re in demand. We’re healthy right now and that’s great."

He says the process of planning and raising money for the new building

extends back about six years.

"We started looking for a space in 1994 and ’95," explains

Nancy Umanoff, executive director of MMDG. "We looked throughout

Manhattan and even drew up some preliminary plans but the spaces were

expensive and none were ideal. Then in mid-1997 we started looking

in Brooklyn and purchased our site in March 1998." Demolition

and construction on the dance center began in June 1999.

Although the company publicly launched its capital campaign at that

point, in July 1999, it had already raised $1 million from the Council

of the City of New York (a sum that has now grown to $1.5 million)

and had received two other million-dollar gifts. It has now met its

$6.2 million goal.

The center will boast a "giant studio," 60-foot square, that

includes a lighting rig and space to seat about 150 for studio

performances.

Morris says the space will allow the company to replicate the size

of almost any stage they will perform on.

"We’re intending to start to offer some community classes in the

summer, maybe a small-scale workshop, but nothing full time till early

fall," says Morris. "We’ll spend the time this summer

finishing

the studios and then go into a long rehearsal period this summer."

Community classes, he says, will start in earnest this fall.

Bricks and mortar are good enough, but dance-making is Morris’s

passion.

Among the three new works featured on the McCarter program is

"Peccadillos,"

a solo danced by Morris and set to an Erik Satie score for children,

played onstage by Ethan Iverson on a toy piano. "Peccadillos"

was originally choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov and for long-time

company dancer Guillermo Resto, who now doubles as MMDG’s full-time

rehearsal director.

"Usually when I make a solo I choreograph it with and on somebody

else," he says. "I’m usually with another dancer or two, and

that person may perform it or not. That’s so it’s not just me dancing

around by myself. I compose the solos in as much detail as the groups.

I compose it and I have to learn it."

In recent years Morris has gained not only respect but a bit of

weight,

too, yet he continues to perform, primarily in solos. "I dance

my own work. That’s how Merce [Cunningham] danced for so extra long

— by doing his own work," he says with a laugh.

"Sang-Froid" is Morris’s newest group work, for nine dancers,

to music of Chopin. He describes the dance as "stern and

beautiful."

"It’s a mix of stuff," he says, a series of short piano pieces

that include "The Butterfly Etude," "The Winter Wind

Etude,"

"The Minute Waltz," and "Nocturne in F-minor" which

Morris selected and arranged with music director and pianist Ethan

Iverson. The work’s evocative, cool title came after the dance,

"as

is always the case," says Morris.

"I didn’t touch Chopin for years because there are a bunch of

good dances to Chopin — as well as a bunch of terrible ones —

and we all spent so many years listening to Chopin chopped up into

eight-bar phrases for barre work in the studio. But partly because

Ethan was raised as a jazz pianist, he has incredible rhythm, and

this music is fierce and direct. I find the music so modern and

surprising.

I don’t see it as beautiful ballet music. It’s driving and

mysterious."

"Falling Down Stairs," set to Bach’s Third Suite for

Unaccompanied

Cello, was originally created for a television special featuring

Morris

and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "For television, the dance had no front,

but I rearranged it for a proscenium stage and it works quite well.

But we only do it when we have a genius cellist available."

Cellist

for the performance is Matt Haimovitz.

Also featured is "Dancing Honeymoon," seen here on previous

tours, a lively and witty group piece set to popular songs of the

1920s and ’30s.

The company will also present Morris’s 1994 work, "The

Office,"

a politically trenchant dance which, sad to say, never seems to go

out of date. Commissioned by the Balkan dance ensemble Zivili, and

set to Dvorak’s "Five Bagatelles," the work premiered during

the period of genocide in Bosnia. The company last performed it in

New Jersey at the State Theater during the war in Kosovo. And as

tensions

mount once more in the region, it’s back again.

What do you do for fun? we finally ask Morris. "This is kind of

fun — it’s hard, but it’s fun," he replies. "We’re here

in Eugene, Oregon, overlooking the river, happy to be on the road.

After this giant difficult season, a hotel in a small town is great.

And when we’re not performing here, we’re kind of taking it easy."

Mark Morris Dance Group, McCarter Theater, 91

University

Place, 609-258-2787. $35 & $38. Tuesday, April 17, 8 p.m.

www.mccarter.org

Mark Morris Dance Group, NJPAC, Newark,

888-GO-NJPAC.

Program includes "Falling Down Stairs," "Peccadillos,"

"Sang-Froid," and "Dancing Honeymoon." $40. Friday

and Saturday, April 27 and 28, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 29, at

2:30 p.m.

Top Of Page
Bill T. Jones

And `The Body’

The Body" has been a conspicuous topic of national

debate among the beautiful — and the not-so-beautiful — people

for at least two decades now. The body accompanies us from cradle

to grave, but how well do we really know it? Dancer and choreographer

Bill T. Jones asks, "Is the body the site of all knowledge and

awareness or is it a vessel we use to negotiate the journey from our

birth to our death?"

As a dancer, Jones’s sensuous performance style has been mesmerizing

audiences for more than 20 years. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane

Dance Company has been a regular attraction at McCarter Theater for

more than a decade. And last year Bill T. Jones brought his solo

"Breathing

Show" — a mix of dance, speech, song, and improvisation —

to the McCarter stage. This year he returns to the Princeton campus

as a lecturer. Jones will speak on "The Body: A Gateway and Two

Doors," on Thursday, April 12, at 8 p.m., in McCosh 50.

Now 48, Jones told U.S. 1 last year that he felt he was at the height

of his creative abilities. Keen to take a break from his customary

responsibilities creating and directing large group works, his project

then was to return to and explore the truth of his own physical

expression

with a solo program. The company’s major works have included

"Secret

Pastures," "Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin,"

"Still/Here,"

and "We Set Out Early… Visibility Was Poor."

Born in 1952, the tenth of twelve children in a migrant worker’s

family,

Jones spent his early years traveling the East Coast as his parents

followed the crop seasons. When he was seven, the family settled in

upstate New York. Jones attended high school there and was the second

child in the family to go on to university. He began his dance studies

in ballet and modern dance at SUNY, Binghamton.

During his freshman year he met Arnie Zane, a photography student,

and together they embarked on a personal and artistic partnership

that lasted 17 years. Their first collaborative duet, "Pas de

Deux for Two," was choreographed and performed in 1973. They went

on to found the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982. But

in 1985, both men were diagnosed as HIV-positive; Zane died in 1988.

Jones, who keeps Zane’s name as an integral part of the identity of

his thriving modern dance company, continues to live with HIV.

HIV and AIDS are among a panoply of hot-button issues that Jones has

brought out of the closet over the course of his career. Following

the premiere of the company’s evening-length work

"Still/Here,"

created in part during participatory community workshops for survivors

of terminal illness, he was cast as the calm eye at the center of

a storm of controversy on art and criticism. The fracas was

precipitated

by the publication, in the New Yorker, of a lengthy, negative

assessment

by noted dance critic Arlene Croce who had, in fact, declined to see

the work that she called unworthy and "victim art." Time

magazine

dubbed the ensuing outpouring of responses from cultural leaders on

both ends of the political spectrum, "the biggest since the

obscenity

debate over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography."

Among the intellectuals who came to Jones’ defense was Princeton’s

Joyce Carol Oates, whose essay on the history of death and dying as

a worthy subject for great art was published in the New York Times.

"The very concept of `victim art’ is an appalling one," wrote

Oates. "Only a sensibility unwilling to attribute full humanity

to persons who have suffered injury, illness or injustice could have

invented such a crude and reductive label."

"I began to dance because I fell in love with the idea of sweat;

I was an athlete who was repulsed by the idea of competition, so I

wanted a poetic, competition-free sweat," Jones told U.S. 1.

"Now

dance was, in a way, an act of rebellion. It said `No’ to the world’s

expectations of me as a young male, a young black male who was

supposed

to be an athlete or a good family man. It said `No’ to the world of

theater, which has a rich heritage, but which somehow separates the

mind and the body.

"But this was how it started. It really was an unconscious act

of rebellion, and I developed a real taste for the abstract beauty

of it."

— Nicole Plett

Bill T. Jones, Princeton University Public Lectures,

McCosh Hall 50, 609-258-3000. Free. Thursday, April 12, 8 p.m.


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