Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

at the Shubert Theatre, March 31-April 2

La Compagnie Marie Chouinard

at the Shubert Theatre, March 28 and 29

Let me make one thing clear: I have nothing against what Arlene Croce has contemptuously termed “victim art.” Her nonreview of Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here in the New Yorker–she refused to see the piece–was fascinating but deeply flawed, as Joyce Carol Oates exhaustively argued in the New York Times: there’s nothing new about this “genre” except the name Croce’s given it. Anyway, it’s not the critic’s job to say what belongs onstage, only to decide whether it’s good or bad. It didn’t bother me that Croce declined to see the piece, however: that seemed more a journalist’s stunt than a critical sin. She made no pretense of having seen it–it was merely the occasion for an essay on the state of the arts in America. Like the artist, the critic should be free to make her own choices, so long as she’s honest. What’s ironic about this brouhaha is that it’s accorded a minor work the kind of attention usually reserved for masterpieces, and all because of Croce’s assertion that it isn’t art at all–that we can’t apply the standards of art to such populist work.

In 1992 Jones, who is HIV positive and whose partner Arnie Zane died of AIDS in 1988, began holding workshops with people who had terminal illnesses, asking them to describe such things as the moment they were told of their illness and the imagined moment of their death. He then used their words–often as lyrics for the songs composed by Kenneth Frazelle and Vernon Reid–and video images of them in the piece. Croce argued that she’d been “excluded” by Jones’s method: “I don’t deny that Still/Here may be of value in some wholly other sphere of action, but it is as theatre, dance theatre, that I would approach it. And my approach has been cut off. By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism.”

Well, not really. Still/Here fails, but not because Jones has included people close to death. It fails because it’s bad art: the images are obvious and literal, the stories that Jones has so painstakingly gathered are undigested. The individuals he talked to may be real to him, but they’re not made real to us. We hear their names spoken, but those names are meaningless. And though what these people have to say about death is often heartrending, it’s rarely surprising.

Moreover the piece is fundamentally insensitive to the reality of those whose bodies are failing them. One of Jones’s motifs is a familiar insouciant gesture–snapped fingers, the arm held high, a small act of courage and defiance. Only near the end of the piece do we discover the source of this motif, when we see on videotape an elderly, rather portly man snapping his fingers: the pathos lies in the contrast between his aging body and gleaming, impish spirit. But when Jones’s young, superbly conditioned dancers snap their fingers, the gesture seems merely an arrogant fillip of their physical superiority.

In general the contrasts between the experience of the “victims” and the performers’ movement are disconcerting. After the dancers do several cartwheels–which must be as easy for them as rolling out of bed–we see a slow-motion videotape of a heavyset woman in glasses cartwheeling that emphasizes her effort and her triumph in ending the movement standing: the image underlines crucial issues in any meditation on mortality, physical limitations and the impulse to overcome them. But professional dancers doing effortless cartwheels don’t look vulnerable–there’s no triumph there. Perhaps the juxtaposition that bothered me most, however, was the one between several surreally “enhanced” video images of hearts pumping and dancers in profile contracting and releasing their torsos to the rhythms of the pulsing heart. Beating hearts always make me think of the heart stopping, of the fragility of life. But watching the dancers I could only think of what splendid physical specimens they were, a fact brought home to me by their extraordinarily strong and supple backs. I didn’t believe they’d ever die.

These bothersome juxtapositions could be called a failure of rhetoric, but I think the flaw goes deeper. I think Jones’s representation of the experience of mortally ill people is fundamentally untruthful and therefore disrespectful, though perhaps not intentionally. Jones never appears in this dance, but his performers’ swift, strong, vital movements reveal that the piece has been shaped more by his pride as a dancer, his pride in his physical perfection and expertise, than by listening to the vulnerable folks he interviewed. I suppose one might argue that the dancers’ strength and vitality represent the spirits of the dying, not their bodies; but these movement images didn’t represent much of anything to me. A dancer putting one hand over her breast and the other over her crotch while a woman in voice-over talks about losing body parts to cancer, or a dancer slapping his thighs and tumbling backward, as if this were fight choreography and he’d just been flattened by an invisible opponent, are too literal to make an impression, so literal that they remain mundane.

It’s not as if Jones were incapable of expressive movement. When Arthur Aviles takes a slow-motion step into the darkness, his trailing calf and the sole of his foot glittering in a pool of bright light are very evocative. I thought of Jones and Zane as the two legs of a single body, of the devastation of losing one’s lifelong partner in love and work; I thought of mysterious rites of passage, at once swift and never-ending; I thought of disequilibrium and the fight to maintain one’s balance despite loss and weakness. And the dancing throughout was undeniably spectacular. I particularly liked one section of bravura choreography in the first act and the little tinkling jig it was performed to; that and Odetta’s a cappella rendition of a traditional gospel number were totally unlike the rest of Frazelle’s monotonous, pretentious, overwrought compositions. I liked the video images of the workshop participants, smiling or trying to smile, which made them much more real to me than did the dancing or any of their words, tortured into “poetry” by Jones’s editing and Frazelle’s art songs.

I’ve always liked Jones’s choreography, his athleticism and virtuosity, driven by rage. But his loud, eloquent, angry voice doesn’t suit Still/Here, intended to be a softer, quieter, more empathetic piece than Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land or Last Night on Earth. Jones, the perennial bad boy, fully inhabits himself–and only himself. That’s his MO, and though it’s worked for him before it doesn’t work here. The result is an ambitious, well-intentioned, extravagant ($1.2 million) failure.

It’s a failure I was happy to be able to see, however. And for that I can thank Performing Arts Chicago, which earlier in the week brought in La Compagnie Marie Chouinard, a Canadian troupe very different from Jones’s, with no pretense of creating grass-roots art. Instead Chouinard’s work is firmly anchored in the tradition of art for art’s sake, complete with allusions to dance history. This, plus rather old-fashioned designs harking back to Martha Graham and Nijinsky, makes the enterprise seem a little archaic. But at least Chouinard accomplishes the goals she’s set herself.

Her organic approach to choreography is particularly well suited to music like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with its peaks and valleys and harsh, high colors. Like his music, her choreography evolves with a mysterious but insistent logic, bursting forth and receding and bursting forth again. Because she emphasizes the dancers’ breathing, we clearly hear their hissing, sighing, drawing breath, almost sobbing. She also obviously encourages them to exaggerate rather than subdue the facial expressions that come to them through exertion or emotion. Typically, Western dancers are unnaturally impassive–perhaps an outgrowth of their role as the choreographer’s “medium”–so it was refreshing to see so many open and vulnerable faces.

Chouinard also takes an unusual approach to sexuality, clearly at the heart of the two works on this program: the solo Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (to Debussy’s music) and The Rite of Spring, an ensemble work. No penis envy for this woman–Chouinard simply appropriates the penis, making it do double duty as a symbol of men’s and women’s sexuality. The tactic works surprisingly well. In both performances of Afternoon of a Faun it was a woman who grew a big, red, tapered phallus and thrust it into the ground, creating a continuity between men’s and women’s desire. In The Rite of Spring the dancers use similarly curved spikes as horns, phalluses, and extensions of the breasts. This Rite of Spring, exquisitely lit by Chouinard herself and filled with dancing as violent, driven, and “primitive” as the music, is completely successful on its own terms. And thank God there’s still room in our culture for the small successes and big failures.

Jones built an epic around the passage to death, but sometimes it can sneak up on you. I was astounded and saddened by news of the death March 20 of Kelly Michaels, who founded the tap/modern company Alexander, Michaels/Future Movement with his partner, Lane Alexander. Though Kelly did many things, I’ll remember him as my jazz-dance teacher at MoMing, for his sense of humor and his witty, gentle, ironic corrections.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Beatriz Schiller; Marie Chouinard.