February 14, 2015
Over the last 20 years, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company has made several stops in Madison. The company returned last night to Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theatre to perform three older works to a nearly sold-out enthusiastic house. Accompanied by a live string ensemble comprised of UW-Madison music students, each dance featured the full company of nine athletic and diverse performers.
Spent Days Out Yonder, choreographed by Jones in 2000 (based on a solo made in 1996), created an ethereal atmosphere to a lively Mozart string quartet. Intriguing, meditative, and curious, the dance seems a comment on the power of community and partnership. In soft light, a trio clad in flowing blue pastels and with backs to the audience, circle their arms from the elbows like strange angelic scarecrows. Clearly isolated from each other, the dancers keep to their own personal space. Punctuated by angular arm gesture and wobbly knees, the group shifts and expands. A curious single figure crosses in front of the others moving in silhouette, simple and pedestrian. (This cross along the edge of the stage is a repeated theme in Jones' work.) Two distinct groups become apparent. Supple as water, the dancers evolve to form one group, seamlessly oozing across the space. In pairs, they at last make contact, moving in a new direction touching and supporting one another through gentle fluid lifts.
If Jones' intention is to explore community, Continuous Replay (1977, revised 1991) also reflects that, albeit in a more challenging form. Choreographed by both Jones and his late partner, Arnie Zane, this harsh piece is loaded with repetition yet falls short of much meaning. A lone dancer appears naked (yes, no clothing) in the corner, sharply repeating an accumulation of arm movements. Musicians coupled with a recorded soundtrack randomly accentuate the atmosphere with bits of a few Beethoven string quartets and a sprinkling of contemporary text. As the repetitive naked figure advances across the stage, others (also naked and repetitive) join her in a box of light. The group expands, supplemented by eight students from the UW-Madison Dance Department, and traverses the space in angular unison. Little by little dancers exit and reenter in assembly-line fashion, adding bits of clothing each time—a hat, a bra, pants, etc. until fully clothed. The haphazard sound is echoed by haphazard dancers appearing in counterpoint to the advancing group. First a lone ballet-like figure in the opposite corner, then a male pas de deux draw momentary focus from the group. In a final cross, all 17 dancers fully clad, except for the original soloist who remains in the buff, repeat the angular sequence in unison, shouting indecipherably at the end. Continuous Replay feels arbitrary, disconnected and evokes little more than the spectacle of people gradually putting on clothing.
Somewhat of a signature piece, at 25 years old, Jones' D-Man in the Waters (1989) is still a breath of fresh air. Once it starts, there's no stopping this roller-coaster thriller that demands full commitment and impeccable timing from the dancers. Smiling to the Mendelssohn accompaniment, which nearly proved too much for its young musicians to handle at one point, the nine company dancers evoke images of swimming by playfully diving across the floor on their bellies, one arm outstretched in a freestyle reach, hunching their bodies while a breast-stroking arm propels them sideways, and lifting each other in dolphin positions. Wearing a variety of heavy dark clothing reminiscent of army fatigues, the group shifts and reassembles itself through the space flashing hands stiffly in front of their bodies. Dancers parade on tip-toe, lifting their chests to the sky. Taking flying leaps into each other arms, they catch each other just inches from the floor, and carry each other gently, working as a complex unit. The sense of play is prevalent, as is the power of the group to support the individual. In a final striking image, a group assembles at center to catch a diving dancer in their arms and toss him precariously high into the air. If he started the program with the illusion of angels, Jones ends it with stunning imagery of flight.