Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company
“Ravel: Landscape or Portrait?,” “Story/”
The Joyce Theater
April 2, 2013
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2013 © by Michael Popkin
The second program of Bill T. Jones’ two week run at the Joyce, consisting of two new works, immediately pulled you into a poetic space and held you there. Jones’ extraordinary scenic and dance sense were combined with superb live chamber music by the Orion String Quartet. Simple, yet powerful designs and lighting of Bjorn Amelan and Robert Wierzel (respectively) filled in the landscape.
“Ravel: Landscape or Portrait?”, made in 2012 but new to New York, suggested a pastoral world that shifted midway through from dance studio to the woods. This followed a change in the composer’s “String Quartet in F Major,” about half way through the piece from Debussy-like impressionism to more traditionally classical. To shimmering adagio music, Jones deployed his full company of eight dancers (equally male and female) in an environment created by rigging ropes across the back of the stage, and then from the rear corners forward to create imaginary walls. Like the music, it recalled the designs for Robbins’ “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune,” except that instead of drapes, it felt as if there were mirrors at the sides of the stage (and not the front). When the tone of the music shifted half way through, the designs projected leaf-like shapes over everything, including the floor and the front of the proscenium arch, and it was as if we were in a dappled forest.
Within these worlds, Jones’ dancers - barefoot and dressed in casual garb with stripes and bluish tones – first linked hands and moved about in groups. But smaller ensembles emerged. Impulses that started within the group pushed smaller contingents of dancers at the edge into motion, provoking duets or lifts. The dancers respected the rope boundaries at the sides of the stage and pulled up against them as they would a mirrored wall. This fostered the illusion of a studio. Three dancers would be on one side of the boundary performing; three beyond the ropes looking back at them as if they were a mirror image. But the image was askew; those beyond the boundary varied the pose of those inside just a little. Somehow, they should have matched but they didn’t. Just as Ravel distorted classical harmony and form by introducing something modern and off-key, Jones upset your visual perception. It introduced the uncanny and surreal.
After the quiet and dreamy “Ravel,” the tone changed with “Story/” and its Schubert score, “String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor (Death and the Maiden). Jones set his dancers to ride the crest of the composition’s surging tempi. Beginning with a collective shout from the entire company, the structure was basically variations on a theme and the dancers were off and running. More meditative passages dominated the middle, but the work ended with a rousing tarantella, endlessly reprised; the cast stamped out Jones’ take on the Neapolitan folk dance and hollering, “Hey . . . Hey . . . Hey!”
The program notes say that the work is “the result of our ongoing investigation of the concept of indeterminacy as a tool” and mention John Cage. (You can’t help but think of Merce Cunningham). It’s related to another work last year, “Story/Time.” The designs support this concept of random composition. Intersecting white lines turn the stage into a rectangular grid of 12 equal squares, three deep and four across. The lighting – again backlit but also spots from overhead – illuminates sometimes one square, sometimes others, and still again various groups of them.
Early on the spotlight hit two squares at the extreme left; in the front one, two dancers did a duet; another dancer performed a solo in the rear one. Simultaneously a block of four squares was lit at the other end of the stage, but here a group of dancers was involved in movement that ignored what happened elsewhere. The sequences and possibilities were endless and you indeed had the feeling they could have been determined by chance; but an inner logic was pursued. Once conceived of the scenes were no longer contingent but real. How the concrete related to the possible became an implicit back story.
Yet “Story/” wasn’t purely abstract. A shtick with Granny Smith apples, used as props, held things together thematically. The cast entered holding them, and afterward apples periodically reappeared, thrown about, held or rolled on the floor at times. (Shades of Adam and Eve?). A section from a fabulous male duet had Erick Montes Chavero repeatedly kneeling on the floor to pastoral music and giving himself goat horns with a gesture of his fingers to his head.
An adagio passage then turned into a dirge. When the entire company entered from stage left to right, rolling slowly across the floor on their stomachs, Jena Riegel was in the middle emitting a cloud of theatrical smoke. Yet just when you started to think about the “Death and the Maiden” of Schubert’s title – the scene dissolved into a marriage processional. The company formed two lines and a couple proceeded up the middle, shaking hands with all in attendance. Like the random use of squares, it was random association of plot elements, but once you posited them they had an arresting dramatic logic.
As in “Ravel,” the costumes were contemporary, here loose trousers and T-shirts. Everyone’s had the style of the group but was individually different. Similarly, Jones found odd moments of stillness in his blocking for groups. Playing off the surging, sometimes almost metronomic rhythms of the string quartet, he paused the ensemble when the rhythm told you they should move. Expectation and tension built; and when the artfully posed group finally broke into motion, the effect was brilliant.
One lovely moment had Riegel, Jennifer Nugent and Shayla-Vie Jenkins leaning back on the floor in a loose formation, all with one leg casually extended to the front. The lighting was dim, the music quiet. They all quietly raised their working legs in unison, presenting their feet and holding them still before returning to them to the floor. After four or five bars, they repeated this; then did it again after a more irregular interval; and all the while the music played. At once edgy, original and unexpected, it was an unforgettably lyrical moment of dance. Yet serene and quiet as it was, it still prepared you for the rhythmic exuberance of the tarantella to come.
A first program, earlier in the week, concentrated on Jones’ works from the decade, between about 1980 and 1990, when AIDS decimated both his company and artistic family, as well as the downtown dance community in New York in general. Watching these two new dances in that context gave you a feeling of serenity and balance restored after the trauma of that era. The pastoral feel of both new works was evident; but if there was now no wolf in them, you always remembered the tragedy in the background. Their peace was that of an idyll restored; of a paradise glimpsed again but not regained.
Photos by Paul B. Goode:
Top – “Ravel: Landscape or Portrait” (left to right, Erick Montes Chavero, I-Ling Liu,Talli Jackson, Jennifer Nugent, Jenna Riegel).
Middle – ““Ravel: Landscape or Portrait” (Erick Montes Chavero in lift with company dancers).
Bottom – “Story/” (Jennifer Nugent and LaMichael Leonard, Jr.).