Still Re-born: Jones/Zane Looks Back and Finds You Can’t Go Home Again

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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Post-modern fracas

heronScott Heron (prostrate on floor) with Hijack’s Arwen Wilder (left) and Kristin Van Loon in “Smithsoniansmith.” William P. Starr photo courtesy Scott Heron.

Copyright 2010, 2017 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK — Some art defies explanation and some doesn’t require any. Scott Heron, a notable New York performance artist, who now calls New Orleans home, and Hijack (Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder), a couple of post-modern movers and shakers from Minneapolis, met in Russia in 2002 and made a short dance, titled “3 minutes of Pork and Shoving.” The trio’s latest collaboration, “Smithsoniansmith,” the result of eight years of “many trips up and down the Mississippi River” –presented July 29-31 and August 5-7 at Dixon Place’s spacious new digs — seems like a compilation of these collaborative efforts. The hour-long collage opens with the above dance; a subtly stirring pile of denim clothing holds one side of the space (with Wilder hidden inside) and opposite, Van Loon seasons and marinates Heron, who’s naked, lying on a table — pants around his knees, keeping his nuts and berries covered with baseball mitts, and sporting a glove on one foot — and puts him on a spit like a pig for roasting, as stage smoke billows from an offstage “barbecue pit.”

To get the rest of the article, first published on August 10, 2010, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

The British are Coming Out! The British are Coming Out! Queer Heritage from Bintley, Birmingham Royal Ballet, & Edward II

By Mark Dendy & Copyright 2000, 2107 Mark Dendy

(Editor’s note, 2-8-17, not necessarily binding on the author: On Saturday, addressing a gathering in front of the Stonewall Bar in New York, where in 1969 a police raid ignited the Rainbow Revolution on the same day Judy Garland died, Sex in the City star Cynthia Nixon, speaking after Egyptian out of the closet refugee Omar Sharif Jr.,  proclaimed,  “We are allies united by our Otherness… And if we didn’t know it before, thanks to Donald Trump we know it now.” How does Mark’s Flash, first published on the DI on September 29, 2000, relate to the Trump administration’s current hyper-speed other ostracization of the Poor, the Queer, the Trans, the Brown, the Black, the Public-school child, the Woman, the Scientist,  the Planet, the Atheist, the Jew, the Judge, the Pope (okay, that was before the election), the Samaritan, the Muslim, the Journalist, the Facts…. ? His second to last paragraph in particular makes me think that in a presidential universe alienated from and alien to so many of us,  perhaps the true Other is the one who only sees in one-dimension, and who has not yet realized that in America in 2017, we are the Mainstream. We’re also revisiting this piece because in Mark Dendy’s own work for dance and for the theater,  particularly “Dream Analysis,” he has always championed the notion that the Other, whether Queer or just plain queer, is us. Source for Nixon quote: Democracy Now.)

The re-publication of this piece is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance & Freespace Dance, whose opinions are not necessarily reflected in the new introduction above.

NEW YORK — Does the mother country have something to teach us about coming out in the opera house? We Americans tend to think of ourselves as the frontiersmen when it comes to art and homo art and new ideas and graphic sexual content onstage. It’s the Brits who are uptight, stuffy, conservative. Watching David Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet production of “Edward II” at City Center the other night, I was reminded that this country was founded by people who were so uptight the British kicked them out!

“Edward II” is the really tragic tale of a king who lives openly in front of his court as a homosexual. His lover is executed by Edward’s distraught wife and her cohort. Edward is harassed, tortured, raped, pissed on (real water on stage) and finally brutally killed by nothing less (and I don’t mean this figuratively) than having a red hot poker shoved up his… well, you get the point. THE most sexually graphic ballet I have ever seen. Sometimes to a tasteless fault, but it is at its best unapologetic, bold, daring, rough-edged and brutally graphic.

The dancing of the second cast (I didn’t see the first) was good and solid. Robert Parker was excellent as Edward. As Queen Isabella, Ambra Vallo showed us not just the villainness, the betrayed and jealous, but the hurt and devastation that such a false forced relationship can cause. The pas de deux between Edward and Gaveston is luscious, physical and romantic without being schmaltzy. The satisfaction that comes from watching ballet dancers equally support each other and share partnering responsibilities is immense. (And possible in ballet only with same sex couples as opposite sex couples are too disparate strength-wise to achieve this.) This romantic bliss cannot last forever. Enter jealous wife. The proceeding pas de trois and the pas de deux with Isabella and Edward are choreographically some of the most beautiful in the production and further the story, and are danced magically.

Other moments, such as the witnessing of the offstage beheading of Edward’s lover Gaveston and Edward subsequently running on stage with a bag tied with a rope supposedly containing Gaveston’s severed head are so bad they are over the top. This of course is part of ballet’s charm to the modern experimentalist. Delsartian pantomime instead of movement and gesture that reveal real psychological and subtextual meaning.

The story is a great one — part of our queer heritage. Kudos to Bintley for having the guts to take it on and tell it like it really was, hot poker and all! In places it shines, in others, for this taste it needs to be polished. I personally didn’t care for the leather scene stuff being used to negatively define the heteros. Leather isn’t dark and murderous, it’s about brotherhood and trust. It’s primitive and tribal but not evil. Mr. Bintley might look again at such an easy stereotype to cloak his villains in. Stereotypes have been used about gays enough that we should be more sensitive when using them to define ourselves, especially as it pertains to the leather and trans-gendered sects of our tribe. There were also hilarious and wonderfully campy cuttings up with Edward’s inner court of jester queens! What a Fairy Tale this was.

The moral of the story: If you are gay, don’t let the socially dominant culture dictate to you to conform to the sexual norm. There will be an unhappy woman and she will have you for supper.

Choreographer, writer, actor and dancer Mark Dendy is the artistic director of Mark Dendy Projects. He has also created ballets on the Pacific Northwest Ballet and other companies, as well as choreographed for the theater. Mark Dendy’s “Elvis Everywhere” will be presented July 12 & 13 at the American Dance Festival & August 9-13 at Jacob’s Pillow.