from the 1989 production of D-Man in the Waters

Thursday-Saturday, June 16-18 at 8 p.m.

A busy year for Bill T. Jones? You decide.

His incandescent musical on the life of Nigerian Afropop composer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, FELA!, closed this January after 13 months on Broadway and a no-brainer Tony Award for choreography. By then, the musical’s world tour had already opened at London’s National Theater, before dates in Fela’s native Nigeria this spring. The tour continues: FELA! opens tonight (June 15) in Amsterdam, before just-announced dates in Washington, DC in September.

Jones was named a Kennedy Center Honoree last December. And he’s been at the center of perhaps the biggest story in the New York dance world this year, overseeing the merger of his 29-year-old company with DANCE THEATER WORKSHOP, that longtime downtown cradle and crucible for contemporary dance. The name of the new organization: NEW YORK LIVE ARTS.

In recent weeks, his company has been reconstructing the three repertory works we’ll see during residencies up the road in Charlottesville and at Bard College in upstate New York.

And in between them was that little tete-a-tete between Jones and SITI director Anne Bogart at UNC on April 7, where they announced an upcoming collaboration on Stravinsky’s RITE OF SPRING, scheduled for Carolina Performing Arts’ 2012-2013 season.

More after the jump.

Jones created and premiered D-MAN IN THE WATERS in 1989, before company Demian Acquavella, who inspired the piece, died from AIDS. But those expecting a funereal piece should look elsewhere. In a March interview in Pittsburgh, company dance reconstructor Nicole Smith called the high-energy work “a beautiful celebration of life triumphing over loss and survival, endurance-wise and emotionally. Quoting Bill, it’s about ‘life throwing down the gauntlet and you rising to the occasion’.”

It’s hard to disagree. Matching the optimism and exuberance of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat, D-MAN seems to riff in places on old Esther Williams films as well as the chaos down at the community pool. Repeatedly, dancers literally dive right in, leaping into each others arms, or zooming across the floor. Significantly, the group supports one another through their aquatic moves.

SPENT DAYS OUT YONDER reads as a different, more measured response to the passage of time, mortality and dance. As three dancers with their backs turned to us gently articulate balletic moves to a Mozart string quartet in a lit rectangle in the center, a procession of individuals enter and slowly walk across the shadowed areas of the stage. Their progress pauses, then continues, downstage, up the side at stage right, and then upstage behind the dancers.

It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking, but occasionally, a person from the shadows enters into the lit area and takes up the dance, while a dancer in the middle subtly segues out into the shadowed procession. The metaphor seems clear: we all enter, and exit, at different times. But the dance goes on.

CONTINUOUS REPLAY, a late addition to the program, is a restaging of HAND DANCE, an Arnie Zane duet from 1978. This witty, minimalist accumulation of some 45 hand and arm gestures increases in complexity while being punctuated by foot percussion. As it does, other things accumulate as well: the intensity of the John Osborne composition, Spring, the crowd on stage, and the clothes they’re wearing—since this work begins with the performers in the nude, in an inverted striptease.

Reynolds Theater, Duke
Monday-Wednesday, June 20-22 at 8pm

TAO DANCE THEATER, a young Chinese modern dance group that will be in residency during the American Dance Festival, makes its U.S. premiere this week on the stage at Reynolds Theater. But were those growing pains we witnessed in the video for the initially-scheduled work WEIGHT X 3 ? That triptych of the company’s initial works featured an admittedly mesmerizing mid-piece solo—one in which dancer Duan Ni kept a long staff continuously spinning above, around and about her form for 20 improbable minutes. That dance, however, was bookended by duets at beginning and end that appeared to plateau before their conclusions.

Then we learned that the company had decided to drop the work from their ADF program. The word came immediately following the world premiere of their latest work, 2, at the Singapore Arts Festival.

In its first minutes, 2 nearly suggests a choreographic version on Warhol’s movie, Sleep. The stillness of choreographers Tao Ye and Duan Ni’s prone bodies on stage are only intermittently punctuated by sudden adjustments of the arms, legs and torsos to the white noise and dramatic dynamic shifts in composer Xiao He’s electronic score.

But as the work develops, what seems to be a roaming energy arcs freely through the dancers’ bodies, animating their various parts, relocating them in its trajectories. We’ve seen choreographer Shen Wei explore this impulse, most memorably in CONNECT TRANSFER. And Shen has also investigated still, seemingly sculpted poses similar to the gallery we view here at mid-work.

But Tao and Duan appear more interested in the broken planes—the gates and hinges—of the human body than Shen’s cooler uninterrupted curves referenced above. On the whole, Tao Dance’s minimal aesthetic intentionally seems a bit rougher at the edges.

Still unresolved at this point: whether the group’s deliberately limited movement vocabulary and field of operation (at ground level or just above) effectively sustains our interest during the work’s 50 minutes.