Review: Bill T. Jones at Jacob’s Pillow
Photos by Paul B. Goode
Choreographers intending to create a dance about something, especially topics like politics or history, can often be soul-crushingly, boringly literal. Bill T. Jones is too smart, experienced, and talented to fall into that trap. So when you learn that his 2008 piece Serenade/The Proposition is meant to be part of a three-part trilogy in celebration of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and that it features a good deal of historical text – from the likes of Frederick Douglass, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the great man himself – you may shy away, thinking you’re going to get a blunt history lesson.
Drop any trepidation and by any means possible get yourself to Jacob’s Pillow this weekend (which, a pre-performance video fittingly reminds the audience, was once the site of a station on the Underground Railroad). Serenade/The Proposition may be the masterpiece of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. If you haven’t seen Jones’ work before, or even in a while, it will become clear why his MacArthur Genius status was recently reconfirmed with the 2010 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award.
Serenade/The Proposition is a beautiful, life-affirming piece, even as it deals with one of the most wrenching periods of U.S. history. It is triumphantly successful because it never hits you over the head. Time period is suggested through costumes that refer to the past without replicating it; a minimal set of six columns that can be moved to define space; video images (by Janet Wong) projected on the backdrop; and those mobile columns; live music on electric cello and keyboard; and powerful, well chosen words: spoken tracts that become poems through rhythm and repetition and one key deconstructed song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, with key phrases wound through the evening-length piece.
The dancers flow in waves to a largely lulling if sorrowful score, smoothly shifting in and out of unison; this piece about a brutal conflict has few sharp edges. Set against the white background columns, their bright, contemporary costumes and meandering movement of the prelude suggest a pleasant, present-day visit to the historical monuments of Washington, DC , interrupted when the ensemble suddenly comes together and freezes, under intense light, on the vertical center, then disperses, leaving one or two of their number frozen behind for a few seconds more, a highly dramatic motif that is repeated throughout the piece, but not to the point of overkill. It feels like the flash of a memory.
Time shifts when four of the columns roll forward, creating a stage within the stage that frames a costume change (men in vests and long coats; women in long skirts; all in black and white with red accents) and the drama and movement intensify. There is no need for gravity-defying leaps or turns; the movement vocabulary is largely grounded, yet soft and weightless, with innovative partnering that does not call over-much attention to itself. Movement, words, costume, lighting, projections, and music (including virtuoso singing by Lisa Komara and a layered score of classical, folk, and original music by cellist/bandleader Christopher Antonio William Lancaster) seamlessly blend to create subtle yet powerful scenes – departures, disagreements, battle, death, mourning, remembrance – within a gorgeously successful and satisfying work. Jones is a masterful choreographer, brilliantly confident in his medium, as are his dancers, whose distinct personalities shine through in this sumptuous work that feels like a reverie and leaves an impression you won’t soon forget.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
At Jacob’s Pillow through Sunday, July 25