DTW and Bill T. Jones Join Hands, Or, An Ode to Arnie Zane

September 17, 2011

All of a sudden Bill T. Jones and Carla Peterson look like they’ve been hanging out together for years. Carla, on the one hand, the latest beacon of Dance Theater Workshop, champion of current dance in all its untidy and/or international forms; Bill T., the experimental artist who has made forays into Broadway and is about to be canonized yet again on PBS.

But last Friday, they looked so comfortable together, like maybe they had danced in the same improv group years ago. Whatever it is that binds them, they now seem to be on the same track, launching a new entity this fall (see “Power Merger”). Together they welcomed the audience to the inaugural season of New York Live Arts.

Apparently it was Carla’s idea to kick off the season with Bill T.’s early work. And it does set the foundation for the new hybrid space. Hybrid because it houses both a dance company (Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company) and a presenter (NY Live Arts). This was a night of going back to Bill T.’s postmodern roots, and at the same time embracing the larger community. (By the way, DTW was not originally a postmodern stronghold. See our feature on its history here.)

Looking at three of Bill T’s early works, what intrigues me is that the formal structure (often borrowing from Trisha Brown’s accumulation method) is studded with moments of sudden need and tenderness. For instance, in Monkey Run Road, a terrific duet that Bill and Arnie made in 1979, the two guys sit, they gesture, they repeat a phrase, they push around a big plywood box that occasionally one of them jumps into, they sit some more, they grapple, they repeat. But in the middle of the very deliberate gestures, Erick Montes (as Arnie) curls up in the lap of Talli Jackson (as Bill). Or one clings to the other’s back as he lurches into a lunge. You can picture Bill and Arnie working together, saying, “If I hold your head here, what can you do?” or, “If I don’t touch your head but wave my hand behind it, what does that do poetically?”

From these experimental impulses come hints about their relationship. Did Arnie, in some way, rescue Bill? That thought occurred to me the very last second of Monkey Run Road. Among the shards of spoken text is a bit about three young brothers listening to a radio report about a bombing, maybe during the Korean War. Jackson’s (Bill’s) last line is, “One of the boys thinks it’s the end of the world.” At that moment Montes (Arnie) springs out of the box and onto Jackson’s shoulder in a flying position. Lights out. It’s the second time that particular jump/dive has happened, but this time, coming right after that expression of fear, Montes/Zane is a figure soaring with hope and freedom, giving Jackson/Jones, who supports him, a strong sense of purpose. And, come to think of it, Bill saved Arnie too, from splatting onto the floor.

I think Bill and Arnie helped each other fly artistically, and I’ve always found it touching that Bill keeps Arnie’s name in the title of his company—Arnie died in 1988. Seeing these early works reminds me that their creative partnership was the crucible of Bill’s enduring work, the arena of discovery that thrust him into the dance field. It’s fitting that he used the title of Elizabeth Zimmer’s 1989 book about the two of them, Body Against Body, as an umbrella over this series (I saw only Program A, and only one of four casts).

This edition of Continuous Replay (1977/1991) celebrates the different strains of the dance world coming together. The night I saw it the guests included Matthew Rushing (from Ailey), Janet Eilber (Graham), Vicky Shick (Trisha Brown), Robert Swinston (Merce), among his own company members. Oh—and Bill T. himself joined in. To see Janet Eilber tip-toe along with Vicky Shick was a hoot. To see Matthew Rushing huddle together with Bill T. was very moving. The Ailey aesthetic and the Bill T. aesthetic used to be miles apart. Aside from the uplifting inclusive aspect of the gathering, there was also the glorious Erick Montes leading the pack, the only one who started nude and stayed nude. His part is called “the clock,” but he’s more of an anchor—or a pied piper. His resilient energy never flagged as he led the shifting group; he was like a bird at the apex of a V-formation flock. (In the excellent program notes by Marcia B. Siegel, we learn that the piece began as a smaller work, and the phrase was made by Arnie.)

Valley Cottage: a Study,
another early Bill-and-Arnie duet, starts with skipping, skittering, and galloping. More dance-y than Monkey Run Road, it also has those moments of unexpected intimacy. The first cast was company members Paul Matteson and Jennifer Nugent, and it helps that they’re married. They seem to know where the other is without looking. But it wasn’t actually intimate until Paul started to recite a letter as though he were writing it on the spot. It’s so specific that you feel you know the letter writer and the letter receiver. (“You are no longer the only difficult person in my life.” It turns out the assignment to the performer was to write a letter to someone from your past, so it’ll be different each  night.)

“Body Against Body.” One kind of body against another kind of body. Words against movement. One culture against another culture. One vast body of work (Jones/Zane’s output) against another vast body of work (45 years of DTW). I recommend “Body Against Body,” which is up at DTW—oops, NYLA—until Sept. 25.



Erick Montes and Talli Jackson in
Monkey Run Road. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy NYLA.