at the Merle Reskin-Blackstone Theatre

December 17 and 18

Bill T. Jones and his dancers might have been movie stars–they have that combination of vivid personalities, openness, and talent that connects with an audience. That star quality that makes an audience feel they could just walk up and start talking to the performers. But Jones and his dancers lack the ingratiating blandness that seems to be required of stars.

Jones himself is intelligent, articulate, powerfully built, gay, politically active, HIV-positive, and an astonishing dancer. With his lover Arnie Zane, Jones made many challenging dances that pushed the limits of social convention. Since Zane and another company member died from AIDS, Jones has seemed to survive on anger; his best-known piece is an evening-length theater-dance work, Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, that dwells on racism and faith. Anger and hope are still present in Jones’s current dances, but they have an underlying sense of desperate hurry; the strongest images are of fragmentation and the strongest feeling is Jones’s painful urge to communicate.

The urge is most painful in Last Night on Earth, a solo danced by Jones and dedicated to Zane. Jones has said the dance is about the anger that often drives sexual desire; the work is filled with sexual gestures, such as when Jones licks his thumb, brushes it against each of his nipples, and grinds his pelvis in a perfect circle while Koko Taylor’s bar-blues music plays. The costuming screams some message about cross-dressing: Jones wears only a sequined dance belt under a flimsy, pleated white miniskirt, leaving his muscular chest and legs bare. At the end, Jones sings the spiritual “River Jordan”; its famous lyrics “The River Jordan is chilly and cold / Chills the body but not the soul” suggest that the dance is about Zane’s death, his “last night on earth.”

The problem is that Last Night does not have much good dancing. However heartfelt, the work is disjointed; Jones lifts images from the Kurt Weill and Koko Taylor songs he uses but does not connect the images in any way. He even descends to a banal movement like the splits, which he spices up with an obscene sign of the cross that ends with him grabbing his crotch. Too serious to be a spoof, too sentimental to be serious, Jones’s dance has been overloaded with messages but doesn’t provide enough dance substance.

Jones’s Love Defined has more than enough substance, though it also threatens to become mired in sentimentality. The dance is set to a series of songs by Daniel Johnston, singing in a naive, childlike voice as he accompanies himself on toy instruments. During the first songs the company throws itself into some lovely dancing, as tableaux of gawky, naive shapes melt sinuously into runs and lifts. Plump Lawrence Goldhuber holds tiny Heidi Latsky over his head like barbells, as Odile Rein, Adelaide walks in circles with her hand covering her ear and Arthur Aviles does an acrobatic turn, dives the floor, and rolls. In counterpoint to all this activity there often seems to be a limp body or a tangle of dancers center stage. The undercurrent of mourning becomes very clear during Johnson’s tuneless talk-song “King Kong,” which celebrates the monster’s love for his woman. As Goldhuber slowly shifts into playing King Kong swatting airplanes, the other dancers drift to the sides where they just watch him; when Goldbuber falls, it’s the king who falls, not the monster. In the next song, one dancer puts an an arm around and comforts another dancer as they circle Goldhuber’s fallen body, miming King Kong’s wake. During the last song, “Love Defined,” Goldhuber is resurrected and all the dancers join in a circle center stage. Even Reine-Adelaide, still walking in circles with her shoulders hunched and her hands over her ears, is drawn into the circle and embraced.

Jones’s older works have barely a trace of sentimentality, though they are always full of feeling. The subject of Jones’s 1987 solo Red Room. excerpted from Robert Longo’s performance epic Killing Angels, seems to be living intensely, on the edge of life and death. As a melody finds its way through thundering machine sounds in Stuart Argabright’s and Longo’s score, we see Jones lying face down with his arms outstretched. The backdrop, by Longo, is a red curtain pulled into a knot at the center and pulsing: a lovely abstract image of a heart. Seemingly imprisoned in a pulsing heart, Jones staggers forward, knees shaking, with his arms crossed overhead. While much of the movement material seems generic, such as side leaps, Jones has small touches–clicking fingers, tilting head, leaps in which the shaking travels through his body–that stick in memory. But it’s Longo’s image of a powerful man trappped in his emotions that dominates this dance.

Easily the best piece of the evening, D-Man in the Waters has all of Jones’s strengths and few of his weaknesses. Dedicated to Demian Acquavella, a company member who died from AIDS, the dance has a traditional theme-and-variation structure and is set to Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat. But what themes and variations! The piece begins with dancers running one at a time to form a line that snakes across the stage; as soon as the dancers reach their places, they whip their stiff hands, palms facing inward, rapidly idly in front of their faces. This simple gesture appears again and again, when a dancer is lifted and carried offstage and when a dancer is carried piggyback across stage. A ballet combination performed first by an attractive young couple (Maya Saffrin and Jeffery McLamb) is repeated later by big men: Goldbuber lifts the six-foot-tall Jones high in the air and holds him upside down. The nonstop dancing, speckled with images of diving and swimming, easily carries Jones’s message of endurance, role reversal, and freedom. Jones’s enthusiasm, the relatively raw and simple movement he chooses, his dancers’ skill and sheer presence, and the dexterity with which Jones juggles the movement themes combine to make D-Man in the Waters a successful, hopeful dance.

Every dance Jones presents is a about preserving hope in the face of pain and death. But his best argument is his dancers. Whenever Arthur Aviles moves, the message he unmistakably communicates is exuberance and love of dancing. Jones’s dances, his dancers, and his life have been a testament to hope and to enduring. The least we hope is that his upbeat message turn Bill T. Jones and his company into stars.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lois Greenfield.