Looking Back With Love

Merce Cunningham at Lincoln Center, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane at Jacob’s Pillow

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company is celebrating a couple of anniversaries this year: the group's 20th year and Jones's 50th birthday. At Jacob's Pillow—which is honoring its own 70th with a revised edition of Norton Owen's excellent little book A Certain Place: The Jacob's Pillow Story—Jones presented the two terrific new dances he showed at Alice Tully Hall last winter, Verbum and Black Suzanne, with the music ensemble Concertante making the barn theater resonate gloriously with the Beethoven Quartet for Strings in F Major, op. 135, which accompanies Verbum, and Shosktakovich's Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, op. 11, for Black Suzanne. Germaul Yusef Barnes gave a powerful performance, in Power/Full, to a demented rant (score by John Oswald), in which "Jesus Christ" and "Power!" were melded in ways that would astonish the emissary of peace and love, before being joined by five others in a gentler ritual to Laurie McDonald's Kyrie.

The notable premiere wasn't new at all, but a reconstruction of Blauvelt Mountain (A Fiction), a section of the remarkable evening-long duet created and performed in 1979 by Jones and his partner, Arnie Zane, who died in 1988. Anyone who remembers the dance will see it as a palimpsest; shadowy memories of Bill and Arnie lurk behind the fine performances of Malcom Low and Wen-Chung—inhabiting a cryptic gesture of pointing repeatedly to one palm (Jones) or a dogged circular run (Zane).

A Loose history of time: celebrating 50 years of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company
photo: Tony Dougherty
A Loose history of time: celebrating 50 years of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Blauvelt shows the influence of the 1960s avant-garde on two then-young choreographers. The dance is a series of tasks—athletic, tender, confrontational—ritualized through repetition. The men begin kneeling, backs to us. Amid the soft hum and singing voices in Helen Thorington's live-mixed score, Low slowly puts his arm around Lin, and together they twist, crumple, and thrust their legs in the air. Lin cradles Low's head and brings them to their feet.

The movements, however arduous, have an everyday bluntness about them, and the rhythms are forthright in an OK-we-did-this-now-let's-do-that way. I feel as if I'm living out a day with the men, or a symbol of all their days: their thoughtful moments, their mysteries. Sometimes they talk quietly to each other as they walk along, or converse in free associations we can barely hear. Many times, they strike individual poses in a circle of light, varying the relation to each other. Once they escalate a sequence of positions on stools to such a speed that one of them has to yell, "Stop!" Even a burst of anger—the hand offered and ignored, the chokehold, the pistol hand—becomes a motif.

The considerable physical virtuosity doesn't depend on obvious "dance steps," and I was thrilled that people at the Pillow cheered for Low and Lin, for Jones and Zane. The applause was a little different from the applause for the other pieces and such fearless performers as, omigod, Ayo Janeen Jackson and Toshiko Oiwa. It would be interesting to see Jones's other casts for the pungent work: two women and a man-woman pair. In excavating Jones and Zane, Blauvelt Mountain dancers reveal themselves.

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