The performer who takes the stage must believe that he is fascinating, that he or she deserves being the locus of several hundred or thousand points of attention, says dancer/choreographer/director Bill T. Jones.
That kind of “star presence” is what Princeton University students will try to achieve when they perform “Continuous Replay,” a seminal post-modern work by Jones and Arnie Zane at McCarter’s Berlind Theater, Friday through Saturday, February 18 to 20. Also on the program are “Easy for You to Say,” from the repertory of Zvi Gotheiner; “Vault,” a new ballet on pointe by Graham Lustig, artistic director of the new company lustigdancetheatre, with live music performed by Princeton students; “Narrowline,” an experimental contemporary dance by Israeli-born Deganit Shemy, and “Folding Articulation,” a new piece by Jill Johnson, former principal dancer with the Frankfurt Ballet. Princeton faculty member Rebecca Lazier will contribute “Water that Burns,” a new collaboration with students with a set design by Jeremy Olsen. Five dances by student choreographers will also be presented.
To the general public, Jones is the Tony Award winning choreographer and director of the Broadway hit “FELA!” and the latest dancer to be a Kennedy Center honoree. Other honors include a MacArthur Genius Award, and innumerable accolades from the dance world, which has been watching him — often uneasily — for more than 35 years. Uneasily? The openly gay Jones has often used movement, images, and words to aggressively confront audiences with uncomfortable issues of race and gender.
Jones, 58, is black, tall, and muscular, and his lover and collaborator, Zane, was short, white, and Jewish. Jones grew up in a mostly white town in upstate New York, and Zane was raised in the Bronx. They met when Jones was beginning his dance studies at State University of New York at Binghamton.
Jones danced as a soloist and with Zane until 1982 when they founded what is now the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Based in Harlem, the 10-member company has performed in more than 200 cities in 30 countries. Jones is currently touring a commissioned work about Abraham Lincoln, “Fondly Do We Hope, Fervently Do We Pray.” A documentary about its making will be broadcast on PBS American Masters this year. And in a landmark move, Jones has merged his company with Dance Theater Workshop. As executive artistic director of the new entity, New York Lives Arts, he will appear on a panel at Dance Theater Workshop in New York on Saturday, February 19, at 3 p.m.
Zane died of HIV-AIDS related lymphoma in 1988 at age 39, but Jones keeps his memory alive. At a January lecture at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, Jones spoke with emotion about Zane’s 1977 choreography for “Continuous Replay,” how Zane drew on his passionate interests — martial arts (with its fierce, thrusting movements), photography (with stop-action shapes and stillnesses), and the post-modern dance aesthetic of Lucinda Childs (endless skipping in formal patterns).
“He researched them and mined them again and again with artistic discipline and integrity,” says Leah Cox, who is setting the work at Princeton with student dancers. Cox is currently a guest artist at the Lewis Center. She danced with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company from 2001 to 2009. “We are such a culture of the faddish and the new, it is so remarkable that Arnie had the tenacity to research something and to will all of those interests to come together.”
A Texas native, Cox went to the University of Texas and was introduced to Jones by one of his former dancers. “I was very fortunate to be dancing in that company when Bill was both making all of the movement, and I learned from the inside why he made the choices he made,” says Cox in a telephone interview. In her current capacity as the company’s education director she teaches his work at Bard and does short-term assignments, such as setting this dance for Princeton.
Jones remade “Continuous Replay” in 1991, set it to music by John Oswald, and now it is one of the works that a university dance department can license. It is based on 45 shapes or gestures. As the dance progresses, shapes are added and the dancers improvise changes in the way they use the shapes. Meanwhile a soloist enters, and a technically challenging duet is happening on the other side of the stage.
At the Princeton University lecture in January, which was packed with students and fans, Jones revealed some of his trademark chutzpah, telling of his awe at receiving the Kennedy Center award, but also, irreverently, about what was cut from the televised version. For instance TV audiences didn’t hear playwright Edwin Albee come out with “The only good plays are written by Democrats,” and they didn’t see Jones give President Barack Obama a black power salute. Then Jones teased university officials about why the students were not given an opportunity to perform his piece in the nude. His company performs it that way, but student groups are allowed to make exceptions. He cites George Balanchine’s reason for not choreographing for nudity: “All the parts that swing don’t swing to the music.”
As Jones spoke about “Continuous Replay,” Cox demonstrated the initial sequence. In one instant Cox went from “ordinary person” to “dancer zapped with strong electrical charge,” from a body consisting of maybe a trillion standard corpuscles to a shape torched by an atomic force field. And then the shape changed. And changed again. Time and again she reverted to her natural self, for Jones to make comments, and when told to perform a different part, seared eyeballs with her presence. Then, like all aging dancers — who say they aren’t ready to perform, but cannot keep from doing it — Jones got off his stool and joined her. Of course, he, too, had that “star presence.”
After the lecture, the Hagan Dance Studio at the Lewis Center was packed with onlookers as Jones rehearsed the students, trying to refine and energize the shapes they made.
The strength of the student dancers, says Cox, is that they are interested in the intellectual idea of how you make decisions. “The dance is based on a sequence of shapes, and as it progresses the dancers are given an increasing amount of improvisation. After a certain point they can change directions. Then they can vary the level (on the ground? in the air?) or the speed. Later they can vary the shapes themselves.”
When it comes to post-modern work like this, dance audiences may need some preparation, says Cox. There’s such a wide range between artists “who want to wow you” and choreographers who use repetitive movement to investigate an idea. “Often we expect a performance to be entertaining, but you don’t go to a museum to be entertained,” says Cox. Twenty dancers engaged in repeating 45 shapes can be fascinating to those who know what to look for.
Cox says the audience will see a new dance at each performance. She says to look for how the dancers are crafting a dance ‘in the moment’ by listening and seeing what is going on with the other dancers. “You create novel things for yourself to do and interest the audience,” says Cox.
The Catch 22: Each movement must look simultaneously spontaneous and preordained. The dancers can’t appear to be making any decisions but must invest each movement with convincing energy.
“Your body can think, but how do you own that with a command?” warns Cox. That kind of kinesthetic awareness — staying vibrant and present — is born of conservatory training for professional dance careers. “It’s hard to teach to students who are not conservatory trained,” she admits.
When it comes to “being present,” Cox says there aren’t many mature performers to look up to. “My model was seeing Baryshnikov, Tricia Brown, and Bill, and watching old videos of (German expressionist choreographer) Pina Bausch. If you are not in someone’s presence you don’t know what’s possible. The one thing younger artists lack is the mentorship, to look up to someone and know what is possible.”
Spring Dance Festival, Princeton University, Berlind at McCarter Theater. Friday, February 18, 8 p.m.; Saturday, February 19, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, February 20, 1 p.m. Students perform new student-choreographed works as well as works by Bill T. Jones, Graham Lustig, Zvi Gotheiner, Deganit Shemy, and Jill Johnson. $15. 609-258-9220. www.princeton.edu/arts.