Dd Response: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Joyce Theater

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Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company took the Joyce Theater stage on March 27, 2013 to present Program B of Play and Play: An Evening of Movement and Music.  The evening’s performance consisted of two works, each one about thirty minutes long, and both featuring live music by the Orion String Quartet. Mr. Jones generally builds his dances using a variety of techniques and choreographic elements, and this evening’s performance seemed to follow suit. Both pieces drew heavily on five choreographic elements in particular: story, gesture, repetition, duet, and indeterminacy.

In the first, titled Ravel: Landscape or Portrait?, Mr. Jones’ choreography paired with Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, suggesting an interplay between the determined and indeterminate. The dancers linked and unlinked hands as they wove through duet and small group phrases. Thin, white ropes outlined a three dimensional cube on the stage, within which the dancers interacted.  At one point, the set itself became a part of the dance, serving as a tightrope to tiptoe along.


Mr. Jones’ second work of the evening, Story, drew inspiration from Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 (Death and the Maiden).  Dressed in clothing reminiscent of what one might wear to a rehearsal, the dancers rolled, spun, and dove their way through a surprising, energetic, and daring dance that had been developed using the company’s latest choreographic methods. The green apples that the dancers rolled and tossed on, across, and off of the stage contributed a sense of spectacle to Story, and inspired audience members to imagine the many possible meanings that those apples might have.

My limited musical training makes it impossible for me to give any sort of technical evaluation of the Orion String Quartet’s performance. Yet, I can say that what they played was beautiful, and the way they played it showed consistent care and support for the dancers. Nonetheless, something was missing from this evening dedicated to movement and music.

The compositional techniques used to choreograph Ravel: Landscape or Portrait? and Story suggested that the musical works themselves were thoroughly considered and supported by choreographer and dancers. But, what about the musicians themselves? Throughout the evening, the dancers seemed unaware and unconcerned with the fact that they shared the stage with other performers. This was unfortunate and odd. Neither music nor motion serves as mere accompaniment for the other—in fact, when I try to conceive of music and motion in this way, it seems physically and conceptually impossible.

Movements are rhythmic in themselves, but also serve as direct causes and immediate effects of other rhythmic events—like music. The constituent elements of music and motion are also constituent elements of  one another, and so they coexist as necessarily interactive.  And so, it seems obvious to me that both dancers and musicians should also interact accordingly. When they don’t—or when only one half of the partnership is engaged—the effect is unsettling.

The disconnection between dancer and musician is an unfortunate, recurring trend in contemporary work, manifesting itself regularly on stage, in the rehearsal studio, and even in the classroom. (I should be clear that the phenomenon I’m pointing out is not quite the same as a chance-based combination of music and movement—though, I think that this sort of approach can also cause similar, problematic detachment). Why has this trend developed? Perhaps it is because many sorts of dance training focus on limiting sounds produced when the body moves. Or, alternately, it may be because many dance students do not have the opportunity to train or even perform with live musicians. Whatever the reason, the resulting trend troubles me because it indicates that today’s dance artists might be oblivious of their surroundings, of their dynamic relationships with others. This conclusion is difficult for me to accept, especially as I recall the obvious intelligence and keen intuition of the artists that I saw dance as part of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s performance raises many questions that are directly relevant to any dancer’s experience. How do we distinguish dancers and musicians? Is the distinction between dancer and musician so clear-cut? What is the nature of the relationship between dancer and musician? And, how might either dancer or musician adjust to create conditions for more fruitful, friendly art-making?

What do you think?

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