Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bill T. Jones at Vassar

I don't really follow modern dance, but one of the dancer-choreographers I am most familiar with is Bill T. Jones. I came to him via musical theater, wowed by his choreography for Spring Awakening. (It's not traditional Broadway dance at all, but I think "Totally Fucked" might be the most exciting production number I've ever seen.) Last semester I did a brief report on Jones for my intro modern dance course, so I learned more about his dance company and his penchant for choreographing pieces that address political and social topics. And yesterday, Jones came to Vassar to give a lecture--which I attended.

Jones' topic was his work-in-progress, a piece about "the legacy of Abraham Lincoln," commissioned by the Ravinia Festival for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth (in 2009). He read us some speeches of Lincoln's that have inspired him, concluding with the "With malice toward none, with charity for all" speech (and for a dancer, he's got a good voice!). He talked about accepting the commission, his cynicism toward all the money being spent to celebrate Lincoln's birthday, but also being moved to tears when he got to see Lincoln's top hat up close. He thinks that the piece may involve dramatizing the conflict between the 5-year-old boy taught that "the guy on the penny" was a great American hero, and the 56-year-old man who no longer believes in heroes.

Jones talked a lot about the difficulties of making art that has a political viewpoint. He said that he began his career at a time when Minimalism and Formalism were the prevailing styles, and it was seen as vulgar to care about content instead of form. Even today, the dance establishment does not always like Jones' politically minded pieces...and Jones agonizes about how to stage and dramatize issues like freedom, slavery, religion... since he cannot simply rely on the aesthetic beauty of his dancers and his music, as some choreographers do. With this Lincoln piece, he hardly knew where to begin, and is slowly finding his way into it. However, one thing he definitely does not want to do is make it about that other Illinois politician, Barack Obama--that's too simplistic.

The only dancing Jones did was a series of poses that flowed into one another like tai chi moves--giving each pose an apt name, sometimes serious ("Apollo Belvedere"), sometimes amusing ("Nineteenth-Century Melodrama: Eek, a Mouse"). He repeated the series four or five times, narrating the names of the poses but also talking about other stuff, too, while doing it. I'd be interested to know if some of this ends up in the final version of the Lincoln piece (working title: "A Good Man").

As a highly verbal person, it is sometimes hard for me to enjoy abstract arts like dance or symphonic music, so I enjoyed hearing a renowned choreographer discuss the thought process that goes into his work.

Photo from record.wustl.edu

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