by Byron Woods
This time out, Janet Wong's striking video designs provide an appropriate metaphor for Bill T. Jones' new work, which "searches deeply for connections" through our individual histories and American history, as it parses the tensions between the ideals of inclusion and unity and the social, cultural and political realities of identity. These in a work in progress containing both flaws and "abundant energy and lyricism."
Read the rest of critic Byron Woods' analysis of Another Evening: Serenade/The Proposition, taken from this week's print edition of The Independent Weekly.
Coming Together, Staying Apart
Bill T. Jones' new work sketches out thoughts on the legacy--and the limits--of Lincoln's historic (and other present-day) American attempts to unify a group of cultures into a single people.
Another Evening: Serenade/The Proposition
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
American Dance Festival
Review by Byron Woods
Particularly after the March performance of his disappointing 2006 work, Chapel/Chapter, (see “Dance of Death,” Indy, Mar. 26, 2008), it’s good to be able to report that choreographer Bill T. Jones seems back on track again.
His newest work, Another Evening: Serenade/The Proposition, may well constitute, like previous works in the Another Evening series, something of a prefatory look in on his deliberative process for an upcoming full-evening project—in this case, a piece dealing with issues in American history and culture touching on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, with the working title A Good Man!/A Good Man? But as a precursor piece or artistic sketchbook, Serenade/The Proposition has more going for it than most.
True, the work we saw on Thursday had already reached a difficult point in its evolution. Burgeoning with sections, at an hour and ten minutes it was already too long to be performed, as it was, without an intermission—and even more so coming at the end of a shared bill evening with Meredith Monk's Solo from Education of the Girlchild. But its present length is still likely being contributed to by editorial indecision.
At this point, Jones seems to be erring on the side of inclusivity in several elements of the work. Lengthy lists of cities—possibly Civil War sites, possibly not, since they’re read, in stentorian tones, without context or explanation—are repeated, without apparent reason, adding little value to an already top-heavy spoken-word text. Elsewhere, Jones’ actors repeat certain word phrases and sections of stories, tweaking a word here and there. These contrasts, which interest us at first, ultimately take on the tentative feel of an artist who simply hasn’t made up his mind.
Similarly, at places we sense that Jones is still including repeated iterations of certain movement sequences and gestures, with variable changes in personnel or outcome. The versions plateau more often than they build or reinforce; too many seem to be here because the most effective ones haven’t yet been chosen. Taken together, these elements rob Another Evening: Serenade/The Proposition of the crispness and pith we enjoy earlier in the work.
But where Chapel/Chapter was plagued by vagueness, a fundamental disconnect between text and movement and a disturbing absence of empathy and imagination, the new work searches deeply for connections—among the writings and speeches of Lincoln, between Jones’ company members (whose recorded voices are heard in certain sections) and the communities in which they live.
Janet Wong’s digital video design provides an appropriate metaphor for the larger work. Repeatedly, we see what appears to be a searchlight peering through the windows and between the ruined structures of old buildings in ancient photographs—visual cityscapes whose photographic decay at first suggest some great necropolis of the past.
The images are manipulated so that their perspective changes. We see them at a side, flattening out. Then we’re among thin layers of individual photographic planes. Then we’re behind them.
Similarly, the choreography and text we encounter in Serenade/The Proposition searches through individual layers of experience: the “histories” the speaker repeatedly refers to—“This history is a person born in 1952.”
As it was in Chapel/Chapter, Jones’ choreography is again credited as having been created with Wong and company members. But the gestures, flow, abundant energy and lyricism here looks a lot more familiar than the movement we saw in March. A seemingly endless series of tableaus are punctuated by historical whirlwinds; the maelstrom leaves no one alone for long. The daguerreotype-like family portrait poses give way to collisions and skirmishes in which characters are blown together, cling and then just as suddenly pulled up, out and apart.
Among these sections, the most moving at this point belongs to a group of women whose dignified, initial pose is spun, tossed and flung into a webwork of conflicts and cooperations. A later, metaphorical sequence has a woman standing between two fighting men, while a speaker says it’s hard to ride two horses at once—and much harder when they are going in opposite directions.
Historically in the United States, a number of forces have repeatedly threatened to thwart attempts to unify so many peoples into one people, one country. This work is most effective when it indicates the degree to which those forces are still at work.
It is disquieting when all of this history seems invoked to build up to a single autobiographical experience on the part of its creator, as Serenade/The Proposition does—placing Jones’ arrival in Richmond, Va. (on a trip with his family as a child) potentially on the same plane as Lincoln’s entry into that city after the Civil War. But we sense Jones is still searching at the end for the proper context of his own history and our histories as well. The work is continuing. It should be.