Last week, Bill T. Jones publicly celebrated his 50th birthday for the second time, with a star-studded performance at the New Victory Theater. Earlier this spring he was feted at BAAD!, the Bronx studio run by former company member Arthur Aviles. At that party Aviles and other former associates performed, and greetings from friends far and wide were read; a simple, ample spread of snacks fueled the proceedings.
The New Victory tribute, beginning with champagne and hors d’oeuvres and followed by dinner at the Duke, had heavy corporate sponsorship and an ulterior motive: raising money to fund Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s audience development initiative in Harlem. The man’s been on tour worldwide for more than 20 years; now he and his troupe want to anchor themselves uptown. Representing that effort onstage, performing as a new cast in The Table Project, were six guys—Jones himself, artist and collaborator Bill Katz, uptown councilman Bill Perkins, and three other African American professionals. Executed by this crowd of big and sometimes creaky men, the work smacked of prison, where an incredibly high proportion of African American men are likely to wind up; when performers sat at Bjorn Amelan’s big orange table, we saw convicts on visiting day. Performed immediately after by six Harlem schoolgirls, the remarkably capacious Project took a much lighter tone. Franz Schubert’s Notturno Trio for Piano in E-flat Major accompanied both sections, performed live.
Jones danced his Let Us Break Bread Together to a cappella singing by Cassandra Wilson, and Save the Last Dance for Me accompanied by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Robert Wilson offered a minimalist poem lauding Jones, and Lauren Hutton vamped to cover scene changes. The glitterati were well served, and Jones’s ensemble looked terrific in last year’s Black Suzanne, to Shostakovich played live by the string octet Concertante. Though there was no cake onstage, you got the sense that the artist has blown out his candles, and that his wishes are coming true.
Doug Varone showed four of his solos—including a new version of The Drawing Lesson, made to be danced and sung by Ariane Reinhart—at the Fifth Floor Theater on June 6. A cartoon work about unrequited lust, it featured the choreographer dressed as a fop, a recording of a soprano singing Handel, and Paris art-salon props. Although Varone is a consummate dramatic dancer, able to move us to tears with his interpretation of Walt Whitman’s Civil War battlefield poetry in on the field of destiny (1993), his eyes glitter and his spirits soar when he’s playing comedy. This one-off evening, also a benefit, revealed many facets of his well-developed craft.
The high points of the spring dance season were surely American Ballet Theatre’s gifts to us, both British and both by Frederick Ashton. The Dream, his 1964 one-act version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, was underlit, but effectively evoked the nighttime forest in which the magical doings unfold. Carlos Acosta handled well the ambiguous role of Oberon, the man in charge of this wooded realm; it’s largely an acting task, and he managed to be troubled, imperious, and magnetically attractive all at once. Julie Kent was properly fragile, steely, and impetuous as his consort, Titania, delightful as she threw herself at the bewildered Bottom played by Julio Bragado-Young. Shorter and with different emphases than in Balanchine’s version for City Ballet (which opens Tuesday at the New York State Theater), this one is somehow raunchier. I like that.
The Dance Sampler at Symphony Space on June 8—four hours of choreography by 16 different ensembles, curated by Kay Cummings—had definite ups and downs. In the plus column were Stuart Hodes and Alice Teirstein’s literally and figuratively bubbly exploration of lost love found, I Thought You Were Dead, to Strauss waltzes; and another piece by older dancers that was almost its flip side, Linda Tarnay and Douglas Nielsen in Music of Regret 2, to music by Astor Piazzolla. Bill Young and Dancers looked terrific in an excerpt from Bent, and the Sean Curran Company shone in The Nothing That Is Not There, and the Nothing That Is. But far too many of the works were rambling and overlong, out of focus, self-indulgent. I left at 11, the announced closing time; there were still two works to go that I was sorry to miss, but all my circuits were overloaded. Tighter curating would have served this evening well.
Plundering the plays of Chekhov in search of material for contemporary dance experiments seems to be the next big trend in downtown dance. Alexandra Beller, who burst forth a year ago from Bill T. Jones’s troupe, has showed work constantly in a variety of spaces. In late May she picked a very small room at Sal Anthony’s Movement Salon to preview Waiting for Chekhov or a Bit of Rope, in which she and Mira Kingsley make a mash of two Mashas, one from Three Sisters and the other from The Sea Gull. Collapsing along a row of 10 chairs ranged against the back wall, apparently wanting to kill herself (drinking Windex, abusing Doritos), she waits for a man who appears but ignores her, and she comes on to the female friend who seems to be her keeper. Beller is an affecting actress as well as a ripe, lush mover. Kingsley is chirpier, more restrained, a perfect foil for this accident waiting to happen. I look forward to the finished version of this piece, as well as to another Chekhov vehicle heading our way from Seattle in July, piloted by the women of 33 Fainting Spells.
The season winds down—but not very far down, and much later than it used to; even financial and emotional woes don’t seem to stanch the flood of new dance constantly filling our lofts and theaters. I pull from my pile of programs for performances seen but not mentioned the one for Jonathan Appels’s April concert at the Clark Studio Theater. He calls his troupe “very meta modern dance poeticians,” and the excesses of that label mirror the excesses of the work. But his hour-long Heat Lightning challenged exquisitely ballet-trained dancers with a constantly shifting sound score combining his own poetry with classical, funk, and house music. Hallucinatory and gorgeous, it cries out for another run.