Since the beginning of his distinguished career, Bill T. Jones has combined talking and moving, riding the seam between theater and dance, welding it with the sheer force of his beauty and brains, his compelling voice and blunt personality. Now well into his sixties, he leaves the stage to his ensemble of gorgeous performers, but his stamp is all over his new pieces, two of which play in repertory this week.
The first is Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, an oral history of the life of his mother-in-law during World War II, which premiered last year. The second is Analogy/Lance: Pretty a/k/a The Escape Artist, a new piece first performed at the American Dance Festival in July. It was inspired by a dialogue with his nephew Lance T. Briggs, a man now in his mid-forties who seems unable to shake past demons: drugs, and his tendency to use his attractive body as currency in a series of exchanges for money, substances, and, while in prison, love. By the time the show begins he’s bedridden, without the use of his legs due to a mysterious illness.
Not unlike its protagonist, Lance is a piece struggling to find its way. Everyone onstage seems to play Lance, or one of his many alter egos, at one time or another. While Jones himself is clearly the interlocutor, his distinctive voice is subbed by those of male and female company members. Sam Crawford’s sound design is tasked with keeping straight the constantly shifting narrators of this story, but all of the speaking — both the voiceovers and the onstage line readings — is amplified, disconnecting the language from the performers in exasperating ways. The male members of the ensemble (Talli Jackson, Cain Coleman, Jr., Antonio Brown, Shane Larson, and Carlo Antonio Villanueva) take turns representing the title character, while the three capable women (Rena Butler, I-Ling Liu, and Jenna Riegel), mostly muffled in cotton knit and stripped of gender signifiers, are often marginalized.
Snippets of familiar choreographic strategies — diagonal processions, contact improvisation duets — surface, as do themes we’ve seen before in Jones’s work, like a redemptive struggle for faith, referencing his upbringing in the black church. The dancers wield metallic poles, which they use to build an oblong structure that serves as both frame and cage; the poles also operate as crucifixes when the occasion demands.
The stage, meanwhile, is bare, the floor and backdrop a harsh white, the primary prop a folding bed. Jones’s husband, Bjorn Amelan, is responsible for the minimal, functional décor, and Nick Hallett for the original score, which manages to sound like spirituals and Whitney Houston without providing the powerful kick of either. Liz Prince provides the costumes — mostly hoodies and sweats but also a rack of fabulous garments for Lance’s sometime career in actual show business. In a welcome enlivening of the landscape, the dancers change their clothes in full view of the audience.
It’s hard to build empathy with a leading character when that character has a different home base, a different body, and a different voice every minute or so. We learn that Lance himself is writing an autobiographical show, goosed along over the years by Bill T. Jones. Analogy/Dora, for which Jones can only act as the messenger, tells the more cohesive tale of an indomitable woman who is, remarkably, still among us.
Pretty a/k/a The Escape Artist
By Bill T. Jones
175 Eighth Avenue
Through November 6