Bill T. Jones rarely makes works that are just about dancing. These days, his social-moral-political conscience is rampant, and he’s full of questions. The setting for his new Chapel/Chapter is the monumental stone Gatehouse, dating from the 1890s, where water from the Croton Aqueduct was once distributed to the city. Renovated by Harlem Arts/Aaron Davis Hall Inc., its performance space lends itself to Jones’s interest in the frail border between sacred and secular and to Bjorn Amelan’s spectacular design. Red curtains hang from the high walls and drape a stone arch near one end to suggest both a proscenium theater and a church. Red-cushioned pews are ranged along all four sides of the space. A black-and-white design within a red floorcloth looks like a giant hopscotch court as well as a church nave laid flat. Robert Wierzel’s lighting makes various squares glow brilliantly whenever performers enter them. Janet Wong’s videos magically superimpose on it numbers, words, flowing water.
In this church-courtroom, Jones stirs together several terrible stories of criminality and innocence—repeating, rearrang
ing, and reimagining plot elements and augmenting them through passionate, full-hearted dancing that can look either violent or ecstatically spiritual. In the most prominent story, a man in search of some kind of excitement kills a naive middle-class family. In another, a man—without meaning to, he says—beats his “troublesome” little daughter to death. The third story, narrated by dancer Charles Scott, tells of two 11-year-old boys, who, having sneaked out of camp to watch the sun rise, see a man drowning in a waterfall and leave, doing nothing about it.
While the audience is being seated, Jones offers a resonant image of blindness, perhaps of an unwillingness to see—the dangerous innocence or ignorance that lies behind these deaths. As performers wearing orange jumpsuits roam around with their eyes closed, Stuart Singer and guest dancers Ana Keilson, Regina Wielingen, and Chia Ying Kao (all dressed in blue) prowl the perimeters to keep the wanderers from stepping off the floorcloth, although they can’t keep them from bumping into one another. Meanwhile Alicia Hall Moran (seated on a glowing red chair) and Lawrence “Lipbone” Redding (up in what might be a choir loft) sing softly, their voices floating to the distant ceiling like a medieval chant.
The Soto family is a happy one. Father (Scott), mother (Leah Cox), daughter Josephine (Asli Bulbul), son Junior (Donald C. Shorter Jr.), and their dog (Erick Montes) play together; they guess the words that Moran spells out (sentences beginning with “The road to hell”) and act them
out— enthusiastically but not at all accurately—in a game of charades. The banality of evil comes across with terrifying force: When the killer (Wen-Chung Lin) asks Mr. Soto to
put the growling dog out of the house, his victim complies. The murderer puts a pillow under the head of the man he’s about to suffocate to make him more comfortable. The chilling details elicited by the trial judge’s questions (read by Moran from a big book) and the defendant’s answers (voiced by Redding) are matched by the performers’ actions—not literally, but as struggles and shifts of position that shadow the real
The murder scene is repeated, faster and more fluidly, with Moran singing the questions and recapitulating responses in a high recitative. Presenting something again but in a different guise is a postmodern strategy Jones has employed before; this time the repetition, ironically, challenges the transformative power of art. Oh, we think, it’s a dance now. But it’s never fully purged of its horror.
The other two stories—probably because of their natures—are less fully enacted, which makes it seem as if Jones is devoting less time to them. We only briefly see Smith, as the abusive father, manhandle his daughter (Maija Garcia) and Shayla-Vie Jenkins, as the mother, comfort her. When Garcia plays hopscotch, we hear a recording of child’s sweet singing and watch the butterflies she mentions flit as red patches of light across the floor; the other side of this brutalized girl who once set her baby brother on fire is revealed only in her father’s self-excusing words. One flaw in the structure as it stands may be that we learn the Soto family’s fate in the sequence that introduces them, but characters from the other two tales behave in enigmatically meaningful ways before we know who they are. The fact that Montes and Scott play key roles in two stories can also be confusing.
The visual and kinetic richness of Chapel/Chapter is matched by Daniel Bernard Roumain’s score (to which Moran, guitarist-singer Redding, and cellist Christopher Antonio William Lancaster also contributed). The music emphasizes dramatic climaxes and adds subtle layers to the atmosphere with tolling church bells, a wild folk dance, plainsong, stripped-to-basics backroom jazz, a simple guitar riff that acts as a tension breaker, and more.
A post-performance discussion among the audience, Jones, and his colleagues (including the superb performers) showed just how stirred up people can get about art that probes crime and punishment, guilt and innocence this piercingly.