We Set Out Early ... Visibility Was Poor (Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Peacock Theatre)
Love and loss
The uncontrollable passion for classifi- cation which characterises today's culture has often led to labelling individual choreo- graphic styles according to an arbitrary identification of recurring patterns, themes and technical motifs. Some eminent col- leagues of mine, for instance, tend to dis- miss Bill T. Jones's art by calling it a self-indulgent exploitation of man's innate skills and innermost feelings. Others simply regard his oeuvre as a series of frequently embarrassing political statements inter- spersed with some post-modern dance steps, and roll their eyes whenever they have to review him.
Indeed, direct or vividly symbolic imagery, more or less explicit references to contro- versial themes and the use of various the- atrical means of expression rather than pure dancing have been some of the recurring and easily identifiable — traits of Jones's choreography. His creations, however, do not rely on the indefinite repetition of the same formulas and, even when the subject matter looks similar, a more in-depth appre- `I sacked who last night?' ciation of the choreographic solutions reveals, every time, a tremendous number of thematic and structural innovations.
If there is a constant in Jones's works, it is the creative unpredictability that the eminent dance writer Donald Hutera refers to at the end of the programme note for We Set Out Early . . . Visibility Was Poor, the work which received its European premiere at the Peacock Theatre last week. Far from the intriguing and bemusing pictorial metaphors of Last Supper at Uncle's Tom Cabin/The Promised Land (1990) or from the lyrical and painful directness of Still/Here (1994) — the work that focused on terminally ill people and prompted a memorable quarrel among dance writers We Set Out Early . . . Visibility Was Poor encapsulates the last findings in Jones's quest for new ways of using the dance vocab- ulary, whether it be modern, classical or post-modern, and of turning it into 'theatre'.
Gone are the author's spoken interven- tions, those monologues some considered so self-indulgent, gone are the various structural solutions that contributed to the multi-layered nature of each creation, encompassing different theatrical idioms. The new work is pure dance. It is not, how- ever, one of those empty and meaningless stylistic exercises so frequently seen on our stages today. Beyond the calibrated geo- metrical patterns, the complex use of space and direction and the choreographic char- acterisation assigned to each individual, lies a well-defined thematic choice that informs and enriches the various movements and sequences.
Yet, as has often been the case with Jones's work, this kind of subtext neither comes to the fore obviously, nor does it impinge on the viewer's subjective response to and appreciation of the choreographic imagery. It is difficult, therefore, to state what this new work is about, for it can be read in myriad ways. The idea of loss, which has underscored most of Jones's cre- ations since the death of his partner and life companion Arnie Zane, is clearly cen- tral to the piece. But even those moments which could be regarded as emotionally intense — such as the final male duet, which could be seen as an overtly autobio- graphical reference — never slip into sugary melodrama, mainly thanks to the double- sided nature of the various dance images.
Humour and sadness underscore each solution, conferring an interpretative dichotomy that prompts, inevitably, con- trasting reactions in the audience; some found the action, including its finale, very amusing, while some went home with tears in their eyes. Although I did not actually cry, I opted for the more dramatic reading and found the build-up quite overwhelm- ing, even though the central section is a bit too static both in expressive and choreo- graphic terms. Call me a sentimentalist, but I have seldom seen such a powerful chore- ographic portrayal of love and, more par- ticularly, of the kind of love that goes beyond death. On a more technical level, what really impressed me was the way the varied movement vocabulary stirred up such a wide gamut of emotions, which is what I think 'pure' dance should do, regardless of chosen themes and central ideas. Much of the praise should go to the ten dancers, who demonstrated clearly that there is no need for a standard body-type to be a first-class artist.