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By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2003, 2017 Chris Dohse
(Editor’s Note: A fearless post-modern masterpiece. The review I mean, first published on September 12, 2003. See also my criticism of Deborah Jowitt for reviewing a work in which her own voice is featured, as well as Jowitt’s response, elsewhere in the DI Archives. Today’s republication sponsored by by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance .)
NEW YORK — This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself disagreeing with history. Or remembering it differently. I mean, I was there, dancing and making dances at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s. Not in SoHo, not even in New York (though I did starve through a winter here), but I remember what concerns influenced me and the dancers I knew then. What compositional choices we made; what styles fascinated us.
Surely if we, many of whom are still members of the pomo dance so-called “community,” gazed into our ’80s navel, what would we find? Bill T. Jones, of course. Inescapably the bellwether of a generation of dancemakers who collided East Village performance and the ’60s avant-garde lineage into talking, gestural, identity-specific, polemical formalism.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s 20-year anniversary program at the Kitchen, “The Phantom Project,” memorializes two of the early duets (1980’s “Blauvelt Mountain” and 1981’s “Valley Cottage”) that established the pair’s careers, along with subsidiary pieces from that time (1982’s “Duet X 2” and “Continuous Relay,” 1981’s “Cotillion,” and 1978’s “Floating the Tongue”). The works are seen in archival footage — projected on a large wall — and recreated by a rotating cast of the company’s current dancers.
I couldn’t afford to see dance concerts during my previous time in New York (and I certainly didn’t have the “wild times at the Odeon” Jones reminisced about to Gia Kourlas in Time Out New York this week), so I welcomed a chance to evaluate this era-defining work. In these early dances, interracial homosexual desire, with its long heritage of taboo, had its first incendiary moment in the art historical eye.
But here’s the thing: The works recreated on the Kitchen program all look alike. And this endless duet isn’t really very interesting today. My memory tells me that, lifted from its original historical framing device it is no more compelling than what anyone else was doing around that time. It looks repetitive in a boorish way, overlong. The attack and intent of gesture (mostly lunging semaphore) and the staccato pacing become predictable and turn into a flat sort of nonlinear blur, like figures on an Etruscan jar.
Part of this is, of course, that the company members who take turns filling the parts originally danced by Bill and Arnie — and they are all individual knockouts — can only stand in the shadow of the mythos of the originals. It was the Jones/Zane relationship, at once subversive and inspirational, the statement it made at that moment in history and the way they turned it into mythology by laundering it — well, not laundering it so much as flaunting it perhaps — in their work, that was the star. With this passion only represented by absence, eulogy and ghosts, the material of the dances becomes textbook tedious.
We see spurts of movement in clearly designed space: Totems, the air between them heavy with the burden of centuries of objectification. Diaries of intimacy, a seemingly unedited pastiche of gestures from Hindu avatar to the cakewalk, the history of the middle of the last century and its debris of images as a series of gesture accumulations.
A tall Black man and an short Italian/Catholic/Jewish man showing tenderness to each other as performance was paradigm challenging then. And still is today, the way Jones has recast the roles (on Wednesday night most notably with Malcolm Low and Wen-Chung Lin in “Blauvelt Mountain”). Physically Lin and Low are as mismatched as Jones and Zane were. When they caress each other, the dance becomes a palimpsest of mixed-race discourse.
Nostalgia in our collective viewing consciousness makes the work poignant. Nostalgia for a time when post-modernism seemed a promising notion, before it ate itself and got knackered. Nostalgia for our own losses and glory days as we layer our milestones over ’80s timelines.
I begin to chafe at the incessant foregrounding of the dancemaker’s ego. And since the work has now been transferred into the vessels of a contemporary cast, of the interpreters’ egos. Movement/verbal diarrhea that privileges solipsism might lead its performers to personal awakenings, but it just falls flat as viewed action, swallowed by narcissism.
I absolutely reject the recorded voices of Elizabeth Zimmer and Deborah Jowitt folded into the sound collage, analyzing and commenting on the importance of these early duets as we watch them — I hear the words “camaraderie” and “structure,” the names Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs — as if the opinions of these two critics dictate public record. Well I suppose they do actually, but really it is too much to be force-fed this canonization. I feel manipulated.
But Jones has successfully controlled what he calls, in his opening remarks to the audience, the “transformation of old things.” It is not enough for him to allow the work to be lionized by the critics into part of the official art historical canon. He seems to have answered his own question: “Where is the truth of what we make? In the past, the now, or out there somewhere?”
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