Middle Passage


Bill T. Jones has moved through life making people mad. He fully understands the artist’s role as provocateur. So it’s ironic that We Set Out Early…Visibility Was Poor, opening at BAM on Tuesday, may anger people simply because it isn’t provocative. “I’m sighing rather than screaming,” he says. “This is about transformation.”

Jones has aged; to those expecting the taut, angry man whose rage illuminated our most pressing contemporary issues, his presence at BAM may be a surprise. At 46, he’s still one of the most beautiful human beings ever made, but an evocative shift has occurred, in his body and in his work. Where once he worked from fury, he is now moving from considered choice. He calls it experience. “The piece is trying to talk about what it means to live for long enough that you can actually have some distance from things,” he says.

He doesn’t disavow the passion from which his work has flowed but says, “I don’t want to do it in that way anymore. It’s got to be passion seen through formality. A person with an extremely emotional temperament like mine–I have to find another way to live so I won’t wear myself out.” He has had to find a new way to work as well, less dependent on what he terms the emotional spigot, more willing to trust a process of construction. He is aided by rehearsal director Janet Wong, the company, and his partner and production director, Bjorn Amelan.

Jones says Wong has revolutionized his choreographic practice by acting as memory, analyst, and codifier. She can deconstruct his every improvisational impulse, mark each component, and then return it to him and teach it to the ensemble–a painstaking process that can distill four hours of material into two minutes of movement. In this way, Jones says, “it’s a thing away from me, and can become a shared vocabulary.”

The current ensemble is strong, no longer the odd collection of characters for which this company is known, more a varied sample of virtuosic dancers. “I don’t want to rely on their personalities,” Jones asserts. “I want to craft material so that personalities come through.”

The most profound change has come through his relationship with Amelan. “From the very beginning of our friendship, we were constantly engaged on a visual level,” he says, glancing at Amelan, who has joined the conversation. “He had a lot of information about 20th-century design. There was something about his aesthetic that I trusted and I was testing: Could I have a collaborator?” A calm, rhythmic order to their relationship is clearly reflected in this piece. Amelan looks back at Jones and says, “I grew up in touch with a lot of visual arts, but I never trusted myself and Bill encouraged me.”

The geometrically defined world Amelan has constructed for We Set Out Early… is a serene foil for the sensuous, muscular curves of the dance. A glowing ovoid lantern, 12 feet high, crosses the stage with the mysterious majesty of a moon; a constructivist composition of gleaming aluminum becomes a cart and then a celestial ship.

The dance, too, is geometrically structured to three formidable musical scores. Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat opens the first section, punctuated with bird sounds and the dancers’ vocals–meows, squawks, and bits of song. The second section is a deliberate interlude set to John Cage’s Empty Words, Sonata for Prepared Piano, and Music for Marcel Duchamp, ending in a procession interrupted by Stimmen, a cinematically colored score by Peteris Vasks.

“There was something about a young Stravinsky and a middle-aged Vasks that was very important for me to think about,” says Jones. “The choices Stravinsky was making as a young, brash, intelligent man who was in some ways showing off and rebelling in his score. Vasks was not rebelling; he is crying out of conscience and experience. I thought that was a universal kind of arc.”

Jones made We Set Out Early… in recognition of his path along that arc. It’s an exploration of formal concerns: a mature artist’s pleasure in shape, light, and choreographic play. He has taken movement from everywhere–jive, jazz, hip hop, the athletic field, and ballet–though he torques the balletic line.

Maybe it’s sheer confidence that makes this piece less confrontational than so much of his earlier work–like his first duets with Arnie Zane or the massive Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land and Still/Here–in which he thrust against received notions about sex, race, and death. Nor has this piece the in-your-face stance that climaxed in his incendiary Last Night on Earth.

“I stand by those works and I’m proud of where they stood in the social discourse,” Jones says quietly, “but now what, Bill? And now what?”