April 4, 2002

On Your Feet

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Last Tuesday marked the first of two extraordinary performances by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. What one audience member described as “the best dance troupe to come to Cornell in years,” the dancers performed Jones’ innovative choreography with energy, cohesion, and dazzling virtuosity.

The program consisted of four thematically unrelated, but choreographically harmonious pieces. Each was choreographed or revised within the past four years, making the program fresh and surprising; just when Jones presents the most astounding movement, something else will surely top it.

Though it was an enjoyable aspect of the performance, the ever-prominent virtuosity did not detract from choreography or music. Particularly recognized for his attention to music, Jones placed the Orion String Quartet onstage with dancers in a piece entitled “Musical Interlude.” The choreography neither directly paralleled the music nor ignored it, as Cornell audiences witnessed with Merce Cunningham’s troupe in March of 1999. The change was refreshing, as was the Quartet’s location. Onstage, the musicians remarkably became as important as the dancers, dividing audience focus between the two.

The lighting during the “Musical Interlude” also contributed to that split in attention; lighting the dancer with a dim side-light and the orchestra with brighter light from overhead was an effective choice for doing so. The dancer in that piece seemed to embody the life between bars of music. Constantly reaching, bending, and kneeling, his movements complimented the growing intensity and sentimentality of the music; the effect was mysterious and awe-inspiring.

The second movement of the piece, however, replaced awe with confusion. While the Quartet continued to furiously play Maurice Ravel’s Quarted for Strings in F Major, dancers dressed head-to-toe in black emerged carrying red square mats. The dancers then lined the floor with these mats for the majority of the movement and abandoned the stage to leave the audience wondering what to make of it.

Problematic or unnecessary sets were present throughout the performance. “Verbum,” the first piece of the evening, was littered with cumbersome metal structures that resembled run-over picture frames; these were not necessary to enhance Jones’ choreography, which was interesting enough to stand (roll, shake, or soar) on its own. The function of the red floor mats, however, were justified in the acrobatic third piece.

“Black Suzanne” enthralled from the moment the curtain revealed its backdrop — a red flower with jagged jaws in the middle. Fast-paced and dense with jolting visual effects, this piece was certainly unique. Dancers seamlessly lifted, caught, and flew from each other with infallible grace, some group movements reminiscent of controlled, skin-to-skin contact improvisation. Truly amazing were the many blind leaps and catches; often dancers would not use their hands at all, or would grasp an oncoming dancer without looking. At one point a woman ran headlong toward a wall of dancers and simply bounced off of them to roll back to her starting place.

The applause did not dwindle after the final “D-Man in the Waters,” which closed the performance with a spectacular array of incredibly clean, articulate, and fluid choreography.

Dancers dived and rolled like waves, appropriately portraying aquatic themes with an endearing lightness.

Though Jones’ dancers notably represent a wide variety of body types and of individual styles, every dancer possessed a stage presence that kept the audience intrigued — and even giggling — throughout. When a dancer fell in “Verbum” on opening night, she continued to perform unperturbed, and was quickly forgiven. There was no better proof than a much deserved standing ovation from the entire house at the end of the event.

Archived article by Pamela Kelly