Theater archives

Rendezvous With Nimble Ghosts


I first saw Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane in 1981 in the old Kitchen on Wooster Street. This year, beginning at the “new” Kitchen, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company celebrates its 20th anniversary. Zane died 15 years ago, but “The Phantom Project” brings him to vibrant life—his voice recounting dreams; his photographs; his video image; and one of his poems, bright with wordplay, that Jones recites.

In the late ’70s and the ’80s, Jones and Zane were our guys. Smart, charismatic out-of-towners who blew into the city with their own take on a ’60s dance revolution they’d mostly only read about. With bracing wit they tackled minimalism, repetition, accumulation, talking about one thing while doing another, and showing how context alters gesture. Juicy movers, they were serious about form.

“The Phantom Project” elegantly evokes those early days. Videos, spoken words, slides of Zane’s photos, and reconstructed dances elide in Bjorn G. Amelan’s red-bordered white space, which dancers can enter via swinging saloon doors, and whose low back wall receives videos or is saturated with color by Robert Wierzel’s lighting. Over the course of the evening, the past dances with the present; movements fly from one living dancer to another and burn themselves into our brains.

While twin images of Jones in a study for Valley Cottage (1980) dance on the wall, Germaul Yusef Barnes and Ayo Janeen Jackson copy his moves—perfectly, beautifully; in some way they’re less “real” than the remarkable figure on the wall. When Zane appears in the video, Asli Bulbul channels him, while Jones reads what sounds like a letter aloud. Duet x 2, a work Jones performed twice in a row with two different partners in 1982, has been revised for the superb Wen-Chung Lin, who dances it first with Malcolm Low, then with Barnes. Duet x 2, Valley Cottage, and the 1980 Jones-Zane Blauvelt Mountain remind me of how precise the two men were as dancers in those pieces, whether they were executing small, strong gestures, striking askew poses, or tearing off more flamboyant steps. They gave you sharp-edged pictures of contained force, relaxing the tension by strolling or talking in low voices or reaching out a tender hand. Voices remembering them (including mine) lurk in Helen Thorington’s score. When I saw the revival of Blauvelt a year ago, I felt as if I’d lived a day with Bill and Arnie—their work, their quarrels, their love.

Their shared fascination with structure also comes into play as Catherine Cabeen and Shaneeka Harrell perform Continuous Replay—Zane’s strong accumulating sequence of gestures that moves them in profile around a track. You can almost memorize the sequence as the women stitch it to the air. Leah Cox’s virtuosic version of Jones’s Floating the Tongue takes a phrase of movement through several permutations by altering her commentary (from factual description to a personal stream of consciousness). Polished to suit a new millennium, these simple-complex works still blaze with integrity and daring.

Dance lends itself to hallucination and dream. In front of us are striving, sweating bodies, but beyond what they actually do lies another, more enigmatic kind of “doing.” In Blind Spot, the New York-based Slovakian choreographer Palo Zustiak shifts between seeing and the unseen, listening and the unheard, reality and ideal.

Smoke and mirrors mold a striking atmosphere. Zustiak uses walls, glass doors, and reflecting surfaces—wheeled into new positions—to alter our perspective of Chashama’s black-box space. A performer in his palissimo presses his face against a curtain of semi-transparent plastic, and, behind it, a blurry double leans toward him. Joe Doran’s lighting creates both clarity and enigma. At one point, the four performers rush about in darkness between pinpoint pools of light. José Aragón’s slides and video images of enigmatic textures sometimes appear on the back wall. Ocean waves crawl up the wall at the end; maybe that’s what we’ve been seeing all along.

Listening’s a mystery too. Yoel Cassell enters to a blast of song in Zustiak’s often menacing sound design. Ceremoniously, he takes hearing aids from a small red box and puts them on; instantly the music cuts out. Later Alberto Denis lies down and Cassell swings a mic over Denis’s head, straining, as we do, to catch the ebb and flow of mystified words. Denis thrusts his throat against a mic as if to broadcast his pulse.

Zustiak studied in Amsterdam with such new-dance explorers as Susan Rethorst, David Zambrano, and Katie Duck. His approach to movement is weighted, sensual, and loose-limbed. But fierce. The dancing in this piece, whether it comes out of confrontations or inner compulsion, is about behavior and how feelings affect the body. Ashley Leite, wearing a tight, skimpy white dress and a disheveled blond wig, hurries about as stiff as a doll, groveling, twisting her limbs, tossing herself into falls. (Leite first appears when Gina Bashour unrolls her from a bundle of black plastic that’s been lying unnoticed against a wall.) Cassell undergoes a solo as if it were a unstoppable tantrum.

In this shadowy world, people fight and embrace, lift a partner, yell silently, curse one another out. Other more surreal activities include hooting into beer bottles, making an accordion “breathe” and getting oxygen from a mask attached to it, and hurling an array of shoes at the curtain. Although some activities seem disconnected from the work’s core, Blind Spot casts a potent spell.