Breathing Space

Bill T. Jones to perform solo and in company at Centennial Hall.

In most cities on his upcoming tour, Bill T. Jones delivers only one show. Audiences might see the acclaimed choreographer and dancer all alone, soloing in The Breathing Show, a multimedia piece that meshes film, text and song with movement. Or else they get all the artists of the entire Bill T. Jones/Arnie Dance Company and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performing together, the dancers moving in and around the flesh-and-blood musicians on stage.

Hardly anybody gets both. But in here in the Old Pueblo, UApresents is putting on both shows at Centennial Hall, the solo work next Thursday, October 10, and the live classical music piece Saturday night, October 12.

"Tucson is unique in that way," Jones said by phone from New York. "There have been very few cities I've done the solo show and (had) the company performing."

Jones, now 50 years old, has won all the usual awards picked up by towering modern dance figures--the MacArthur genius prize, NEA choreography fellowships, BESSIES, honorary doctorates. He's choreographed more than 50 dance works, for his own company and for outside troupes from Boston to Berlin. He's been named an "irreplaceable dance treasure" by the Dance Heritage Coalition. Still, back in 1999, Jones felt the need to challenge himself as a dancer.

"I had been dealing since 1988, when Arnie Zane died, with the responsibility of putting together the company on a lot of levels," said Jones, speaking of his partner in private and professional life. "The company went from (having) two artistic directors to one. One of the things that was put on the back burner was my own intensity as a performer."

Jones had danced in the years since Zane's death from AIDS but thought he "was losing touch with who I was as a dancer ... I was willing to recognize the fact that I was getting older, but I didn't really feel that that meant that I had to stop performing. I wanted to give myself a problem and a gift. And that was The Breathing Show."

The autobiographical work, praised by the Washington Post as "exhilarating as a cruise in a convertible," covers some of the same ground that Jones wrote about in his 1995 memoir Last Night on Earth. Born in Florida to poor black parents, as a young child Jones migrated north with the huge Jones clan to upstate New York. His father managed a camp for migrant farmworkers, and young Bill grew up picking peaches, cherries and plums in orchards where, he wrote, "an eight-year-old boy ... could meet enchantment" as well as "scrubby, treacherously prickled bushes." The workers occasionally created impromptu juke joints by night at the camp, and the boy memorably saw a woman's "huge pink-sequined behind undulating to the sounds of Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King." Bill got a "staccato of whacks" for his spying, but no matter, because, as he wrote, "I had seen dancing."

An athletic kid who ran, Jones didn't start training in dance until he went off to the State University of New York at Binghamton. There, and later at SUNY-Brockport, he delved into modern, ballet and African dance; with some other dancers he formed the troupe American Dance Asylum. Zane and Jones began performing together in downtown New York in the 1970s, and immediately made a sensation. But Jones' work was never narrowly defined. "We didn't want to be in any ghetto--gay ghetto, art ghetto and definitely not a racial ghetto," he once told the New York Times.

The eponymous troupe that Zane and Jones co-founded was influenced more by avant-garde white choreographers than by such black dance leaders as Alvin Ailey, and the company often essayed difficult themes. Jones was famously attacked by New Yorker critic Arlene Croce in 1994 for promulgating "victim art" in his piece "Still/Here," about AIDS victims and survivors; her article provoked a major skirmish in the culture wars over the issues of art and social responsibility. But in more recent years, Jones has said that he wants to make works about beauty.

The collaboration with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center comes out of that impulse. Jones said that some six years ago his company and the Orion String Quartet were asked to perform at a benefit for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "I decided to dive into music that I love. I made the (Beethoven) solo first. Orion and I premiered it then. It went very well."

That led to the whole evening of chamber music and dance the companies will perform here. The component parts vary by performance; on the Tucson program will be "Verbum," set to Beethoven's Quartet for Strings in F major, opus 35; "World II," to a contemporary work by Gyorgy Kurtag, a "challenging" contemporary European composer; and "Black Suzanne," set to Shostakovich's Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, Opus 11.

"The Kurtag piece is very interesting, because the musicians are really onstage with us," Jones said. "They actually have to learn the blocking. At first they were scared to death. ... Some of my blocking is a bit exotic for them. They can play with their backs to each other, for instance. That might be an interesting picture, but it's not what they like to do. ...They tell me that it changes the way they hear the music."

Jones still performs the Beethoven solo occasionally. He's not yet sure whether he will dance it in Tucson, but he did dance it in New York in September, at the Battery Park Dance Festival Evening Under the Stars. The performance was originally supposed to take place on Sept. 12 last year, in between the towers of the World Trade Center. This year, Jones said, "We closed the festival (with the piece). It was very emotional."

Dancing close to raw emotion is crucial to Jones's performances. When he improvises in his solo works, he said he "let(s) go of concerns about the effects of what I'm doing and just try at that moment to maximize what I'm feeling ... It's very important in my art form to stay close to improvisation."

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