What is How! Do! We! Do! all about? Jessye Norman sings and Bill T. Jones dances. Not exactly. It’s about a great singer and a great dancer playing around together? Close; think some more. Two charismatic performers elegantly and
evasively bring their constructed personas together onstage at City Center for what could loosely be termed a dialogue, even though the words they use are by others, and are never about singer-woman, dancer-man, black artists? That’s more like it.
These beautiful people might be siblings, though she’s majestic and he’s wiry and nimble. They have the almond eyes, finely modeled lips, and broad faces of Egyptian statues. Sitting to play a little hand game, strutting to an all-too-brief bit of Ellington, they show the same mischievous, flirtatious complicity. Jones, who’s known for dancing, mellows in Norman’s benevolent glow; he leads her gently or, holding her hand as she strides along, jitters happily in her wake. Their collaborators Bjorn Amelan (set design), Robert Wierzel (lighting), and Eiko Ishioka (costumes) make them glimmer like jewels. Cream-colored panels frame them, translucent ones descend and rise—now pale, now blood-red; Norman appears robed in black, in white, in brilliant blue.
Diva lovers have it hard. The opening is drastically slow, and for what seems a very long time Norman and Jones push long metal poles about. Perhaps they’re trawling for memories. They converse smartly in lines from a Frank O’Hara poem. The wonderful musicians—pianist Harry Huff and accordionist William Schimmel—play desultory music; Norman hums under her breath. In the coughs around me, I hear the mounting frustration: “When is Jessye going to sing?” When she moves anxiously within a frame dropped from above and we hear a taped potpourri of sounds in which glorious snatches of arias boil up and subside, desperation sets in.
But why pine for what’s not? In this elegant, subtle, occasionally arch collaboration, Norman does unloose her voice in “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” She croons breathy phrases of Ellington and brings her expressive musicianship to delicately perfumed songs from her repertoire. But she’s rarely front and center. She sings Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrad” slowly crossing the stage behind a scrim, while Jones dances in front of it, as charismatic as the remembered lover in Goethe’s text. He dances before her too—marvelously shape-shifting—when she delivers Berlioz’s “Spectre de la Rose” from a high platform at the back.
This flawed and beguiling evening is—and is not—The Bill and Jessye Show. That’s why it’s so interesting.
I love the fierceness and warmth of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Urban Bush Women, love the way they hunker down in their dancing and use their legs like weapons. One minute they’ll rudely challenge going assumptions about women in general and black women in particular, the next minute send up any floating stereotypes with right-on humor, and then break your heart with the sweet harmonies of their singing. But her pieces tend to be long and rich, having a similar rhythmic interplay of speech and gesture, as well as patterns that accumulate, then shout a climactic idea. After two and a half hours at the Joyce, I’m as likely to feel battered as challenged and entertained.
In the new Hands Singing Song, Zollar makes hands a subject for cultural speculation, ranging from the symbolic to the literal. In “Give Your Hands to Struggle,” the splendidly lithe Michelle Dorant (alternating in a role with tall, loose-limbed Maria Earle) launches a combative solo while her sisters sing out the names of mostly black heroes who fought or spoke for the oppressed. Women use their hands more specifically to explore their own bodies or show, wittily, how jazz musicians turned the handshake into a work of art. Dorant (sharing another part with Christine King) speaks and sings of a grandmother’s healing hands, while composer Michael Wimberly and James Zollar play softly on piano and trumpet and, upstage, three dancers soothe the air. In a kid’s game of “put your right hand in,” gestures that King, Carolina Garcia, Allyson Triplett, Francine Sheffield, and Joy Voeth pass down the line become vicious, contaminated by the overheard voices of fighting parents. They point their hands at us like guns, then, giggling, turn to fix one another’s hair.
In the last, problematic section, “Hand to Fist,” Zollar enters the realm of political oratory. Wimberly and the dancers don Black Panther berets; drumbeats and manners get even tougher. Zollar’s trying to tell us too much too quickly. In a dry, elder-stateswoman voice, she probes—using the words of poet Abiodun Oyewole—why the Black Power movement fell apart. While the dancers give it to the air and us, she tells of her own discomfort with the movement’s homophobia, its view of women, its infighting, and she pleads for working together—multiracially—in quiet ways against oppression. Yet at the crucial moment, the dancers do nothing quietly, build nothing collaboratively, and the wordy message just hangs in air.