Thankfully, I was wrong. I refer to the particular misgivings published in our June 8 season preview regarding Bill T. Jones’ work, “Another Evening,” which bowed Thursday night at the American Dance Festival. What necessitates the first critical retraction–at least in part–of the 2005 season? Major changes–and nothing less–in this evening-length work made sometime between the April showing in Rome (on the DVD the press was given before the start of the season) and its Page Auditorium performance of July 14.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Jones himself notes that Another Evening has been something of an omnibus since its 2003 premiere in New York. Clearly, both April and July renditions have moved on from what the New York Times called a “low-keyed” original incarnation, which featured choreography excerpted from a then still-in-progress Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger and on-stage star turns by Cassandra Wilson and bassist Curtis Lundy.
Gone was the monetary odometer forever ticking overhead. Gone–unintentionally, we later learned–were Liz Prince’s costumes, due to a snafu at U.S. Customs. Gone, the challenge to audience members to yell out the year they were born, and then the year that marked their lives–itself an extension of the different years marked on the fronts and backs of the dancers’ costumes in Rome.
And with at least one entire section and its accompanying oratory cut, gone also was the sequence containing Jones’ unique, public answer to an author’s inquiry about forgiveness. After Shaneeka Harrell went through the alphabet once, performing brief gestures while a voice intoned each letter, she then danced the otherwise unspoken words of Jones’ reply: “Vivo nella paura non posso perdonare quando finirá (I cannot pardon a life in fear when it is finished). ”
That intriguing choreographed rebus expanded substantially when other dancers took up the alphabet, before segueing into gestures considerably more obscure, 45 in all, which made up Continuous Replay, the signature 1978 work of Arnie Zane, Jones’ artistic partner and soulmate.
But if these and other changes gave Another Evening a sharper definition in Durham than its Roman iteration, the focus of the work now raises darker–but certainly more meaningful–questions than earlier ones on its technique.
Those who were in the audiences for the ADF performance already know how appropriate it is to begin our consideration of this work in terms of what is present and what is missing. For all of its rich, poetic choreography and lush, lyrical moves (oddly reminiscent of Paul Taylor on occasion), Another Evening still primarily seems an extended inventory of absences.
If the title of the work can be said to reach toward the future, expressing the commodity everybody wishes for–a little more time–it’s striking that so much of what we see and hear on stage reaches out, poignantly at times, toward the past in stories, choreographic quotes or restagings of works from years or decades before.
But perhaps reaching is the wrong word here. For despite its frequently exuberant movement, one of the images that lingers longest is the sight of Jones himself, literally marginalized, either at or just beyond the edge of Bjorn Amelan’s white set; not in the dance per se but looking in–or back–upon it.
From the outset, he strolls the perimeter of the dance, relating an anecdote about bad advice from the 1970s. The story grows more elaborate each time he repeats it to the one or two dancers who join him at different places on his walk. As dyads, quartets and groups enact sharp interchanges in various portions of the stage, Jones interrupts the story, reciting a list of years beginning with 1973 (when he began collaborating with Zane) to the present. Ultimately, Harrell and Asli Bulbul take up the chorus in their turn, singing the numbers.
Jones’ voice turns raspy as they do. Time is telescoping as they walk along the edge.
From that vantage point or beyond, Jones mimics moves at times, echoing a late solo with Harrell while partially eclipsed behind a group at the back right corner of the stage. Earlier, it’s telling when the accomplished choreographer and dancer simply stands still, watching as a biracial couple that can only suggest a younger Jones and Zane enact a legato version of a precision contact duet that could have originated 20 to 30 years ago.
Granted, as the work progresses, Jones takes a place at times within the movement on the stage. But the larger context of the work makes such moments seem more visitations or remembrances than anything else.
In the center of the stage lies the perfection of the past: exquisite movement, intimate contact with idealized partners, and vividly remembered choreography. But when Jones’ character spends so much time beyond the boundary looking in, two irresistible questions arise: Does he (still) belong there? If not, where does he belong?
We witness a process of estrangement as this Evening unfolds. While Jones’ character may revisit representations of earlier work, relationships, physical conditions and time, we sense that either willingly or unwillingly, he has to put them all at a certain distance.
But where does a man who stands beyond his memories call home–beside that thin list of numbers representing future years recited at the end of Jones’ show? How large is that home? And who or what is allowed to be there?
For, in repeatedly drawing our attention to the black borders of Jones’ perfect little world, his character ultimately indicates his residency elsewhere–that, or the extreme finitude of the place, if the stage is where it lies.
We can’t be quick to rule either possibility out. Not with the particularly transient stories Jones interlaces between the broken pavement of his dance.
In them, people wave at one another–albeit from an aircraft to the ground miles below. An artist couple takes their photographic studio on the road, touring North America. In a third, Estelle, Jones’ mother, advises that small children’s names must be repeatedly called when a family travels over water–so that their souls do not get lost along the way.
Later, nearer death, Estelle tries to sing the folk song “500 Miles Away from Home” to an infant granddaughter: “A story about a long, long journey,” Jones says, as the performance nears its end. “Over and over and over.”
Repeatedly the stories ask what possible relationships humans cans keep together while in very rapid transit over continents, years and the changing of the human form.
But Jones’ recollection of a homeless nephew in a hospital put issues of absence, presence and home into even starker contrast. As Jones dispassionately related waiting for a 35-year-old man who looked twice his age to awaken, the audience watched very beautiful people dance with elegance and grace, while Daniel Bernard Roumain tended to an elegiac mix of live violin and prerecorded music.
It was a lovely moment of cognitive dissonance, but not the first one of the evening. Before the story of the homeless nephew, a series of topical modern-day perils ranging from hurricanes to terrorism were similarly represented in brief stories or sound-bite excerpts from the media. All were mentioned once, or possibly twice.
Then the moment passed. The dance went on.
While Jones spoke of his unfortunate kin, I was suddenly struck by how empty the stage seemed. How few people were allowed up there. What they had to do and look like in order to remain.
There was a palpable sense of desolation at the close–but one possibly quite different from what Jones might have had in mind.
We saw a nearly empty world on stage, one being made emptier by the stories told within it. A place where ghosts, past triumphs and present perfections were welcome–and, just possibly, very little else.
What cemented this impression? Jones’ own thoughts about it in a discussion following the show on Thursday night. In the last question of the evening, a woman from the audience asked him how he decided what to put on stage.
As Jones gestured at the empty stage behind him, he said, “This is the closest I can…” Then he paused for a moment.
Finally he continued. “I really don’t know anymore about humanity. I used to think ‘I love humanity.’ I’m not sure anymore.”
The audience laughed appreciatively at the apparent punch line.
“It’s a big statement for me to say that,” he added, “because–‘We shall overcome?’ I was raised on that. ‘Civil rights? Everybody’s equal? We’re all good?’ I’m not sure anymore.”
Then he said, “I decided to make a microcosm of the world I want to live in. This is it.”
The crowd went wild, demonstrating its approval with extended applause. For some reason.
For better and worse, I believe that microcosm is exactly what we saw last Thursday night. It’s a world somewhat in retreat: a gated community of sorts, where only beauty is permitted. While it’s a pity one still occasionally hears disquieting reports from far away, at least we never see them.
Given our current geopolitics, the place sounds quite familiar to me.
A brief note for departing guests: Next Wednesday’s Independent will feature our coverage of the International Choreographers Commissioning Program–and staff and student showings, season superlatives and closing thoughts on ADF 2005. If Durham’s a little out of your way by then, just drop by the website: www.indyweek.com.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.