Do not follow up Bill T. Jones dance performance by biking home and immediately taking a shower. What awaits you in the mirror will disappoint you.
After watching the finest figures in Charleston whip their bodies around the Sottile Theatre for two hours, my own flesh appeared like a handful of Silly Putty a toddler had gotten into — lumpy, far too stretched out, a mess I’d sooner throw in the trash than put on display. This was the self loathing I felt after viewing the work of choreographer Bill T. Jones, which is to say, he really is a genius.
In two acts, the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company peformed “Story/” and “D-Man in the Waters” two very different works with one common element — the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra accompanying the works with music from Mendelssohn and Schubert.
Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”), brought to life Jones’ “Story/.” Now here’s where words fail me. The program described the dance as a “investigation in using John Cage’s 1959 album Indeterminacy.” I’m not certain I took away that much. I can’t express in dance terms what it is the company did to showcase such a thing. That’s the rub about being a writer. We look for narrative and themes, metaphors and clues to reveal a plot. But when it comes to dance, I don’t speak the language. So I’ll put it like this: “Story/” expressed how limited the average human’s experience is within their own body. Seated at our desks, checking our phones, turning a car wheel, our range of motion barely moves beyond da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” and that’s a damn shame. What “Story/” showed, particularly dancer Rena Butler, is that there is a whole world of opportunity resting quite literally within our finger tips; energy we could shift beyond our keyboards into our ankles and toes, backbends just waiting to be had. And don’t for a minute think, “Oh, I do yoga. I do all that.” Hell no you don’t. Downward dog this ain’t. We’re talking racing across a room, leaping into another dancers arms, then bending backward, and folding yourself into a human burrito (please forgive the food metaphors, it’s what I know).
The dance was broken up into a few vignettes and while all the movement was impressive, “Story/” occasionally lagged. However, the second half of the program offered a piece with a more tangible sentiment.
As Jones told me when I interviewed him prior to Spoleto, “D-Man in the Waters” was a memorial for those lost to the AIDS epidemic. As a synopsis for a new documentary on the dance tells us, Jones was originally choreographying a work called “Waters” when his partner Arnie Zane died of AIDS-related lymphoma. This was only to be followed by the news that another company member, Demian “D-Man” Acquavella, was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. “What started as a lighthearted ballet about the movement of water became a penetrating comment on surviving the deluge of a plague,” the documentary site reads. That’s clearly felt in the work.
Dressed in military and camo garb, the company enters in a row. The movement, danced to Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, op. 20, begins rather hopeful, then as individual dancers latch onto one another, slowly walk into a bright light, and at one point yell and scream, you gather that this scene isn’t so sunny as you had expected. I’m surprised to say I swallowed a lump in my throat at one point when the tiniest dancers clutched another dancer as if to say, “Don’t let me go, don’t let death take me.”
The work ends with a fantastic, awe-inspiring closing sequence, which I won’t spoil for you. But suffice it to say, amidst the pain of death, “D-Man in the Waters” expresses how Jones and his company recovered and continue to showcase what life is all about, living in the moment and using your talents to their fullest.