In the summer of 1992, I was talking to Bill T. Jones. Having created a number of angry solos and the highly political Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, he said he needed simply to make something “beautiful.” Ten years later (eight after his controversial Still/Here), he’s struck the beauty lode dead on, and found gold.
Transcendent loveliness courses through Verbum, rising and subsiding with the questions posed by Beethoven’s Quartet for Strings in F major, op. 135, played live by the Orion Quartet. Verbum opened the stunning music-dance program the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed at Alice Tully Hall. Eight dancers pour and bound through Bjorn Amelan’s three movable metal portals with squiggly edges. The rich movement and fluidly shifting groupings pulse with Beethoven’s heart, but don’t exclude irregularities. Just as the music starts, three dancers somehow trip small Ayo Janeen Jackson, without disrupting her or what’s to come. Asli Bulbul and Leah Cox briefly immobilize Wen-Chung Lin by holding his head. In the adagio movement, people stand and walk the fingers of one hand along their other pointing arm.
Jones can be wordy in dance, but Verbum, although full of surprises, is controlled in its freedom, like a wonderfully musical perennial garden. That said, I admit to being even more captivated by Black Suzanne. The Orion Quartet plus four members of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society play Dmitry Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, op. 11. To this blistering score, Jones responds with succinct and powerful images that evoke a Soviet acrobatic practice session willfully deconstructed. Costumer Liz Prince has outdone herself with cool little outfits that appear to be made of small, red pads.
The beginning sets the tone. Jackson comes out of a handstand on Amelan’s red flooring, embraces the marvelous Toshiko Oiwa, and together the two women fall to the floor struggling. Two quartets jostle and collapse. Later Daniel Russell Kubert, now one of Jones’s most eloquent dancers, gets felled by a jump-kick from feisty Jackson. Jones polishes gritty athleticism and pushes it in imaginative directions. Performers hurtle, interlock, tumble, rebound, form pyramids. They occasionally stagger with the effort of it all. No one shows off heroics; everyone’s a hero.
These two pieces are separated by WorldWithout/In, a fairy tale gone awry, a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t fit. To several magically atmospheric pieces for string quartet by György Kurtág, nine dancers (including Eric Bradley, Catherine Cabeen, and Malcolm Low) appear on Amelan’s illuminated double staircase (fit for the Nicholas Brothers), emerge from curtained alcoves beneath it, and weave among musicians Ruggero Allifranchini, Timothy Fain, Hsin-Yun Huang, and Sophie Shao, who themselves travel with this movable ritual. What can I tell you of masks, biers and resurrections, whips and cloaks of flowers, except that this mess too has its share of beauty.
Liz Lerman’s Hallelujah: In Praise of Fertile Fields (2000) celebrates Jacob’s Pillow. In this wise, sweet, witty piece, Lerman and members of her D.C.-based Dance Exchange mingle images of Eden, the Pillow vegetable garden, and a soil that grows dancing. Michael Mazzola’s lighting and a tender, lusty score by Robert Een for cello, voice, accordion, and percussion (played live) blow breeze and sunlight through St. Mark’s Church, where angel-dancers frolic. Jacob’s ladder is also a workaday object. It’s possible to dream that Ted Shawn, the Pillow’s founder, is a talking potato, and to feel you see him when Marvin Webb leaps around the space.
Lerman’s company honors diversity: size, shape, race, age. Martha Wittman, radiant in her sixties, speaks words written by cook Esther Miller in her 1942 diary. Wiry, silver-haired Thomas Dwyer is raised on high in a suddenly re-created photo of Shawn and his men dancers.
In Hallelujah, Naoka Nagata dresses the performers in white. In Anatomies and Epidemics, they wear black. This new piece, set in part to a fine score by Andy Teirstein, seems almost like the dark, restless obverse of the earlier work. Lerman uses the same compositional strategy. The space is usually filled with small groups, each laboring at a distinct task. New gatherings form, people strike out on their own, others lie down and sleep. There’s one odd moment, when Peter di Muro conflates the anthrax scare and a laughter epidemic in Tanganyika. As the dancers chortle and guffaw, laughter loses its joy. Is it, too, deadly, or a symptom of malaise?
Lerman’s brief Body Map is one of the best talking-moving solos I’ve seen. “Pretend my body is a map of Israel,” she begins. Here’s Tel Aviv in her left armpit. Better not to make her heart a metaphor for Jerusalem; it might break, advises a friend. At 50, Lerman reasons, a broken heart is nothing new.
When Eiko and Koma collaborate with avant-garde pioneer Anna Halprin, now 81, they don’t slow her down; she speeds them up. What they’ve created involves a stylistic give and take between Halprin, an innovator in natural movement and the task dance, and the Japanese-born pair with their glacially paced, carefully controlled works. It’s easy to see Be With, premiered during Eiko and Koma’s Joyce season, as a journey through age to death and transfiguration, with Halprin as the heroine. It is indeed a journey, and when cellist-composer Joan Jeanrenaud finally stops her bow, we see beyond the mottled red backdrop the three performers standing together on a high platform. The trip is rife with transformations. Koma guides Halprin, she leaning against him, but suddenly he seems to be growing onto her. Once, Halprin slides down the wall to sit, with an everyday matter-of-factness that contrasts with the dreamy pace. Eiko, sitting on the floor, strains up toward Halprin like a baby bird or a child craving the breast. At another time, an embrace between Koma and Halprin turns into a struggle, and she shoves him backward, but after Eiko pries them apart, Halprin caresses Koma’s head. We see parents and children, siblings, lovers in one twisting ribbon of memory.
Eiko and Koma’s 1999 Snow, new to New York, travels from one side of the stage to the other. Exquisitely succinct. Timeless. Rentaro Taki’s music, the lighting Jeff Fontaine created with the choreographers, and the snow that drifts down tell us it is night. The dancers are as pale as ghosts; a wind blows Eiko’s white kimono. At first, the two lean together, but as they progress across the stage, Koma, in his black robe, keeps fading into the darkness like a phantom lover, only to materialize again—enveloping her from behind, kneeling to touch her face. In darkness, in snow, reality sinks into mysteries.
There’s nothing uncertain about Halprin in her talking solo From 5 to 110. Playful, lusty, she leads us swiftly through her childhood, her fuck-you teen rebellions, her role as a radical in dance, her cancer at 50, her fresh understanding of plants and animals. Slyly, she shows us how she hopes to dance at 110. Kicking up her heels, she looks just like the five-year-old self she showed us minutes—years—before.