Review: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Serenade/The Proposition

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Last week my family and I joined my parents in the Berkshire mountains for a little R&R.  Upon arrival, my mom pulls out some brochures the resort had provided and says, “have you ever heard of Jacob’s Pillow?”  Um…yes.  Only the most historic modern dance festival in the U.S., housed at the National Historic Landmark established by modern dance’s historic father, Ted Shawn.  Browsing the booklet, my mom then says, “have you ever heard of Bill T. Jones?”  Um…yes.

So we went, snapping up the last two tickets and shelling out a pretty penny.  It was a lovely, lovely evening.  The setting is so restful, so bucolic.  You can tell a LOT has happened in these danced places, there is a sense of wisdom about the wooded paths, rustic studios and old spacious theaters.

I like Bill T. Jones, at least I tend to like his work, and I REALLY like two of his recently acquired company members Paul Matteson and Jennifer Nugent, both inspiring anchors in the downtown NY modern dance scene.  But, honestly, I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by this piece about Abraham Lincoln and his times.  And I was moved.  At curtain call I clapped and clapped until the end (I hardly ever do this); I whooped at least twice; I almost stood up–a gesture I reserve for truly celestial works; I even shelled out some more pennies for a second viewing the next evening.

As I made the quiet drive home, I tried to piece together what made this work so special for me.  The music was particularly interesting, with interwoven texts and melodies from “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “I Wish I Was in Dixie” layered strikingly over poignant themes from Mozart’s Requiem.  The dancing was full bodied and fierce, tender and real, lovingly embodying Janet Wong’s lush phrasework and Jones’ superbly crafted choreography.  The video element was fascinating and the lighting exquisite.  Yes, these were all deeply in place, but I finally decided it was the subject matter that served to bind these elements together, and which they so expertly served.

A worthy subject, that Lincoln.  What more needs to be said?  The trials he faced and the vigor with which he faced them…  Serenade/The Proposition offered an abstract yet palpably personal view of both him and the everyday man and woman torn apart in the exhaustive effort to suture back their separated states.  Groups of men and women danced vigorously through their equally painful duties: the men tangled in fearsome battle, the women frenzied with internal wars of waiting and anguished hope.  Ordinarily I’m wary (weary?) of dance works that consider such things, they are too often over worked or under realized.  (As Tere O’Connor frequently asks, “why is this a dance and not an essay or diary entry?”) But Jones and his collaborators found a way to and through so much historical material they had thoroughly plumbed to deliver an authentic expression, a true aesthetic visitation of this grim quagmire.  It was a terrible, terrible time, and Jones’ work coaxed me into its  history such that I experienced fresh astonishment, and renewed compassion and admiration for the people who endured it.  I applaud the company’s pithy, bold and fully-owned approach, especially Paul Matteson’s subtle and masterful conveyance of the sincere, weighty, articulate Lincoln and the ponderous burden he was asked to bear.

I did have a few minor qualms/questions about the piece, like the title for one, and the somewhat cursory weaving in of contemporary histories.  But these cast a diffuse shadow, eclipsing only the smallest slice of this bright work.  Tune in later for a decipherment of the scrawls on the program pictured above, which comprise notes on the piece’s crafting taken on my second viewing.  (First I must decode them myself…)  Meanwhile, I will leave you with a quote of an historic nature from an interview about Serenade/The Proposition with Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong (read the complete interview here):

Aktina Stathaki: There is something about history which is archived, “still”, frozen in time. And on the other hand dance is constant motion, always in flux, impossible to capture or repeat. I wonder how this contrast may have affected the company’s work or the way the company sees the engagement with historical material.

Janet Wong: That’s an interesting point. I was reading a wonderful book, This Republic of Suffering which looks at the civil war through the lens of death while we were making this piece. It was a big inspiration. I knew as I was reading it that I could not even begin to understand what it felt like to be alive then, but somehow I was crying by the end of the introduction. And why am I saying this? Maybe just to say that the “stillness” of history is not so still. The fact that we are looking at history across immense distance in time and space already sets it in motion. In our modest way we try to make the past reflect on us and vice versa. And maybe we do this precisely because of its “stillness”.

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