at the Dance Center of Columbia College

April 23 and 24

Bill T. Jones has a quicksilver sensibility: it darts, elusive and vital. Watching his dances is exhilarating, but describing them is like trying to track the motions of a swift fish in sun-dappled, running waters. Transitions are quick and fluid; it’s difficult to say what makes them right. And though images may be repeated and so produce a firm impression, the images themselves are full of mystery.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co. brought to a brilliant close the Dance Center’s series on the African American tradition in modern dance. Jones is black, but there’s not much that’s overtly African American in his dances. Like the works of other groups who appeared in the series, they are just unquenchably alive.

Zane, who died of AIDS in 1988, was white. His work was represented on this program by The Gift/No God Logic (1987), the last dance he choreographed. It is austere, dry, very quiet and measured. Some of it is performed to arias from Verdi’s La forza del destino, but much of it–and all of the last section–is performed in silence. This highly formal quartet makes eloquent use of the stage space with simple patterns, simple poses and gestures, and unusual partnering. Jones’s Forsythia (1989), also on this program, seems to take some of its character from Zane’s work: it’s almost idiosyncratically personal, performed mostly in silence or to Zane’s recorded reading of texts describing two dreams.

Jones’s D-Man in the Waters was the evening’s clear standout. Dedicated to Demian Acquavella, a member of the company who’s ill, this full-company work is serious but never despairing–it’s filled with a sense of struggle that’s triumphant in part just because it goes on and on. Because the work has an unstoppable momentum, despite some quiet sections, Jones’s choice of the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat seems inspired: the strings’ rich sounds are lyrical and singing, even when the music rushes full force. As you listen, you seem to see the eddies and ripples and hear the chattering sounds of a small stream.

A swimming motif dominates the work: dancers use their arms to “breaststroke” across the space, or dive across the floor like waves of maddened belly floppers. Or dancers leap and cavort over others rolling along the floor, as if they were ocean bathers challenged by breakers. Bent arms rippling wavelike before the chest reiterate the music’s swift rhythms; a simple high stepping on half-toe, head down, does the same for a slower section. Often the arms are used like semaphores or stuck out to the sides like a kid’s imitation of an airplane and rapidly vibrated. Hands are held flat before the face and swiftly twiddled–it’s like a ballet dancer’s beats but for the hands. Dancers often pair up, lock legs, and move across the floor like wrestlers in a particularly combative and intimate tango.

Such things carry the dance kinesthetically, but D-Man in the Waters also has a certain emotional logic and structure. Part of that is contributed by the music, which moves from a sparkling, lively opening through a quieter section and ends with verve. But much of the work’s emotion comes from the presence–or absence–of a single dancer.

You can’t believe Lawrence Goldhuber is a dancer when you first see him onstage. He’s fat and balding and has a schlumpy look that makes it seem far more likely he’ll break into a comedian’s patter than into dance. But dance he does, and with a remarkable poise, buoyancy, and musical power. Watching him perform is the sheerest fun–when he went offstage now and again during the first section, I found myself hoping he wouldn’t play only a cameo role. And Jones uses him with a madman’s prescience. Sometimes Goldhuber’s great height and bulk are employed straightforwardly, as when he stands at the center of a quartet of dancers who adopt stiff, upright poses. One by one each of the four topples in a different pose and is caught by Goldhuber, who receives each of them effortlessly but carefully, as if rescuing statues from shattering were his life’s work. When he topples, all four of them catch him. At other times Jones choreographs against Goldhuber’s type: Goldhuber takes his turn, for instance, at moving swiftly across the floor with a partner and twirling gracefully beneath that dancer’s arm.

But Goldhuber plays a role in the dance that goes beyond mere entertainment. Because he’s literally a pillar of strength, his disappearance in the middle section seems a loss: Where is he? I worried. Will he come back? Only at that section’s end does he reappear, and then it’s somberly, grandly. The other dancers’ attitudes of obeisance and awe almost seem to make him a deity. In the last section Goldhuber partners Jones–who is himself tall and muscular–in the most remarkable way, tossing him as if he were a featherweight ballerina. Their dancing together is not balletic, however, but raucous: Goldhuber hauls Jones around, and at one point the two even have a violent rear-end collision.

I don’t mean to give Goldhuber’s part in D-Man in the Waters too much emphasis. For much of the dance he’s just one of the ensemble, only a bit more noticeable. And sections of the dance in which he does not appear obviously have emotional force. Particularly moving is the sequence in which a male dancer carries a tiny woman (Heidi Latsky) like a board and deposits her in the arms of another woman dancer, and Latsky wraps her arms around the woman’s neck and her legs around the woman’s waist with a vehement possession. Yet it’s done so formally, almost stiffly and ritualistically, that any trace of sentimentality is scoured away. Arthur Aviles also plays a resonant role in the dance: short, heavily muscled, with a shaved head, he’s both grotesque and beautifully mercurial. When he was tossed into the air like a joyful dolphin at the end of D-Man in the Waters, the image was so compelling it brought the audience to its feet.

But it’s Goldhuber you latch on to, Goldhuber you remember. Somehow his solid presence is at the core of this bewitchingly swift, whirling, elusive dance. That he’s so remarkably part of it, and yet not part of it, is a testament to the nimbleness of Jones’s wit and intelligence.