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Don't start me talkin'


If you think I'm going to tell you what Bill T. Jones' latest dance is about, well then, skip ahead to Isadora, 'cause I'm not telling. And I'm also not sure I care.

About? What's the deal with about? After years of watching the Bill T. Jones-Arnie Zane Dance Company, it's the resonance of the dancing and the tenacity of certain impossibly beautiful images that stay with me, far more than any memory of what each dance was about. And yet, dancegoers have come to expect that each and every BTJ-AZ work will speak ponderously to some social theme.

Some of the dances have, I guess, but often the buzz is created less by the works themselves than by writers who take it upon themselves to interpret the work for the masses. In fact, the work of this company is utterly easy to comprehend: It requires vulnerability and patience on the part of the viewer, as well as a willingness to be transported to a world where realities and emotions shift with the speed of a hummingbird's wing. If you've got these things, you don't need to read another word. Just watch. This kind of eloquence needs no translation.

That said, We Set Out Early ... Visibility Was Poor, which comes to the Power Center in Ann Arbor next week, is the latest creation of this fabulously popular dance-theater company, founded by Jones and Zane in 1982. At the helm of the company is Jones, artistic director since his partner Zane died in 1988.

Michigan audiences will recall the company's recent performances: Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin (at the Michigan Theater in 1991) and Still/Here (at the Power Center in 1995). Last Supper, a sweeping plea for tolerance, featured gorgeous dancing coupled with moments of poignant humanity. No one who saw it will forget the local minister brought on stage to gently debate morality with Jones himself. It was a powerful still point in the midst of swirling activity.

And everyone was talking about Still/Here long before it got to town. The dance critic for the New Yorker had lambasted the piece -- without seeing it -- for including interviews with terminally ill people and thus creating a "victim art" which was, in her mind, unreviewable. The work itself was surprisingly uncontroversial; the text sections were tastefully, even timidly handled. The best part of the evening was the "talk-back" between Jones, his dancers and the audience.

And here we are again. For those of you who absolutely require a little pre-performance hint, here's Bill T. himself on the subject of his newest piece:

"The title of my new evening-length work, We Set Out Early ... Visibility Was Poor, existed long before any movement was invented. It reads like the first line of a short story that promises to tell of a journey, to chronicle some community's adventure and, in some essential ways, it already does, though not in any programmatic or obvious sense."

A journey. Hmmm. Ah, but I'm drifting toward "about" and I said I wouldn't. I will say this: See this company for the dancers if for no other reason. Jones' 10 dancers are a varied lot: tiny, lanky, svelte, zaftig ... and fearless all. They tackle his mind-jammingly complex choreography with the naturalness of breathing and that's an amazing thing to witness. Legs slash, heads and hips inscribe wild circles on Jones' three-dimensional, constantly shifting canvas. A simple, pedestrian walk explodes into lightning bolts of leaps and falls.

It's so refreshingly unclich├ęd, so previously unseen that one can get quite giddy with delight. At the same time, it's all so much that, at times, the viewer needs to glaze over -- go ahead, let your eyes blur and simply see it as moving architecture. You'll revive in time, ready for new vistas of bodies and space.

Dance companies are becoming more involved with their audiences and the Bill T. Jones-Arnie Zane Dance Company does a tidy job of responsible audience development via community master classes, lectures and those way-cool post-performance dialogues. Here's a rundown of extracurricular activities:

Master Class with Janet Wong, company rehearsal director -- Wed., Oct. 21, 7 p.m., Dance Gallery, 111 Third St., Ann Arbor, 734-747-8885, $10.

Master Class with Janet Wong and Alexandra Beller, company dancer and U-M Dance alum -- Thu., Oct. 22, 11 a.m. and 12:45 p.m., U-M Dance Department, 1310 N. University Ct., Ann Arbor, 734-763-5460, $10 -- 10 participant places and 10 free observer places available per class.

Booksigning: Bill T. Jones will sign Dancing, his new book for children -- Thu., Oct. 22, 8 p.m., Shaman Drum Bookstore, 313 S. State St., 734-662-7407.

Talk about Jones' work by Ben Johnson and Kate Remen, with video examples -- Fri., Oct. 23, 7 p.m., Michigan League Koessler Library, 911 N. University, Ann Arbor, 734-647-6712, free.

Post-show dialogue -- Fri., Oct., 23.

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