The Sound and the Flurry: Bill T. Jones at 30—All Facility, Little Depth

But the Paul Taylor company is the gift that keeps on giving

Young in Taylor's 'Perpetual Dawn.' (Photo by Tom Caravaglia)

Young in Taylor’s ‘Perpetual Dawn.’ (Photo by Tom Caravaglia)

Bill T. Jones is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with a two-week season at the Joyce. He’s been a MacArthur “Genius” and a Kennedy Center honoree. He’s won two Tonys—for Spring Awakening and FELA!—plus countless other awards and prizes and honorary degrees. He’s collaborated with Toni Morrison, Jessye Norman, Peter Hall. Most importantly, he knows how to put a dance together. So why, ultimately, is an evening of Bill T. Jones (let alone two evenings of Bill T. Jones) so depleting? Because despite the kinetic excitements he can provide and his sheer facility and the Big Ideas he sometimes unleashes, you don’t end up feeling his work is really about anything—certainly not the music he chooses to use for it.

The five dances currently on display deploy five musical big guns (all well served by the Orion String Quartet): Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Ravel and Schubert—these dances must be meaningful, right? You stake a large claim when you choreograph to Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, and it was predictable that the dance content couldn’t possibly rise to Schubert’s occasion—this is music too profound to be anything but diminished by a slick vocabulary like Jones’s. The piece is called Story/—don’t ask why—and Jones explains in a program note that it “employs a random menu of movement that meets the music thus crafting a lively conversation between Schubert’s quartet and the choreography.” Sorry, Bill T., but Story/ isn’t a conversation; it’s an exploitation, using this deep music to lend gravitas to dance that has no depth. There’s one beautiful passage—a slow duet, the man and woman (Jennifer Nugent and LaMichael Leonard Jr.) rolling and stepping over each other in a gripping and touching way—but the rest essentially is visual noise. And aural noise, too—what a terrible idea to have the dancers roar out or clap for emphasis at big moments! (It happens in other pieces too.) Well, Balanchine told us what to do in situations like this: close your eyes and listen to the music.

By far the most successful piece on display was the classic D-Man in the Waters, made in 1989. Mendelssohn’s glorious Octet for Strings is dancey, and Jones fills it with a rush of energy that reflects the music’s. Dancers throw themselves, sliding, across the stage and hurl themselves into each others’ arms or onto each others’ bodies—yes, Jones has clearly absorbed Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, and it’s had a commendable influence on him. He also employs a favorite effect of his—fluttering hands and lower arms—and there’s a semaphore-like arm movement he favors. He’s at his best maneuvering his dancers on and off stage and through intricate, pleasing patterns—the patterns seem inevitable, and the dancers have them down cold. I could have done without the pumped fists at the climax and a few other too-easy tropes, but I had a good time with D-Man, which is more than I usually have with the art of Bill T. Jones.

Alas, I didn’t have a good time with Continuous Replay, the only one of these pieces I’d seen before. This is the one in which little Erick Montes Chavero, with his black mustache and beard, enters naked from the stage-right wing and begins a series of athletic poses and postures that he constantly repeats, though with changes, while the other dancers follow him on, also naked, and walk, run and circle to Beethoven string quartets. The gimmick—sorry, the donnée—is that as the work progresses, they slowly don their clothes, until at the end only Chavero is still as nature made him. Continuous Replay proves, as so many other dance pieces have proved, that most people look better with their clothes on. To add to the fun, many Jones alumni join in, so that we end up with people of every age and shape on the stage. They seemed to be having a good time.

No need to walk you through the other dances, because ultimately all Bill T. Jones pieces are the same Bill T. Jones piece—only the music changes, and the number of lifts and throws. But his broad spectrum of dancers—the miniature Chavero, darting and whirling until at times you want to swat him; the flaming (and accomplished) redhead Jenna Riegel; the ardent Nugent with her shaved head; the beautiful I-Ling Liu; in fact, the entire gutsy troupe—are terrific to watch, and they occasionally convince you that what you’re watching is more than superficial. 

The second and third week of the Paul Taylor season at the Koch brought forth as many wonders as the first, not the least of them Esplanade. No matter how often one sees it, it reveals new riches—the sure sign of a genuine masterpiece. As new dancers slip into roles we associate with their predecessors, we’re forced to reconsider. No one can ever efface the memory of Annamaria Mazzini’s wild abandon as she crashed recklessly to the ground in the final section, but Parisa Khobdeh—a nonpareil beauty who can be glamorous, dramatic and funny—gives us a more lyrical abandon that subtly modifies the texture of the whole. Laura Halzack is less austere, more serene than the astounding original, Bettie de Jong, in the dominatrix role of the slow movement. Michelle Fleet, who used to be somewhat nervous in the brilliant role of the girl in pink who runs backward, has found her way and is now transcendent. Robert Kleinendorst, a company rock, now brings extra zest and all-out commitment to his performance. But these alterations or emendations only expand our sense of what Esplanade has to offer, the way new interpretations of Giselle can help us see the ballet in new ways.

The company goes from strength to strength. This season, Sean Mahoney reached a kind of stardom, his passionate energies fully let loose. James Samson has a new authority as he anchors ballet after ballet. As for Michael Trusnovec, now the company’s senior performer, what is there left to say? He is incontestably a great dancer, his blinding focus, artistic imagination and beautiful plastique never seeming to diminish—and his dedication and intensity almost religious in quality. He is equally compelling and moving as the terrifying Man of the Cloth in Speaking in Tongues, the tormented narcissist in Taylor’s darkest work, Last Look, and the spiritual poet, Whitman, dying in Beloved Renegade. He had no predecessor, unless it was Taylor himself, and I cannot imagine a successor. He has no equal among America’s male dancers.

Finally, another devastating departure from the company: the estimable Amy Young, whom we have watched evolve from a bland, almost invisible presence into a superb dancer—womanly, arresting, both gracious and powerful, and these recent years, central to Paul Taylor’s vision. Unlike dancers who leave when their powers erode, Young is leaving by choice, to start a family with her husband, Robert Kleinendorst, so her departure is far from a tragedy for her. It’s only a tragedy for us.

editorial@observer.com