Bill T. Jones’ Surprising Ascent

d-manMy first exposure to dancing began on childhood Saturday nights when my parents cut a rug to Lawrence Welk.  Then there were close encounters with latter-day Busby Berkeley routines courtesy of the June Taylor dancers on The Jackie Gleason Show.  Ed Sullivan offered the occasional nod toward serious dance, usually in the form of a Fonteyn-Nureyev pas de deux that was probably shown as much for propaganda purposes as to honor its artistic value.

“Modern dance” didn’t truly enter my vocabulary until my final year in high school when a beloved art teacher organized a field trip to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see a performance by Merce Cunningham’s troupe.  I remember little of it, except for the row of large floor fans that stood downstage between the audience and the dancers.  (Some recent googling has revealed that the dance was Tread, and the stage decor was constructed by Bruce Naumann.)  I also remember that it was unlike any sort of artistic movement I’d seen before, and as such, it intrigued me deeply.  Deeply enough that when Cunningham staged a series of performances in college gymnasia in the early 70s, I found myself sitting in the bleachers for the only time in my undergraduate years.

I saw a few other dance companies perform while I was an undergraduate and tickets were cheap.  But it wasn’t until more than a decade later that I picked up the thread of this interest again.  Early exposure to accessible companies like Pilobolus and Paul Taylor led me to engage with more challenging artists, including Laura Dean and Trisha Brown.

But what is easily the most memorable single performance of a lifetime occurred in the  at the American Dance Festival when the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company came to town with their first local performance of D-Man in the Waters.

I’d never seen the company before and knew precious little about them.  It was the age of AIDS; Arnie Zane had succumbed in 1988.  Demian Acquavella, the eponymous “D-Man,” died in 1990.  My memory is that the company had been reeling from this one-two punch, and their performance at the ADF was to be a revivification, a spiritual rebirth of sorts for the dancers.  I don’t know if that was true, but it was the thought I took into the performance with me that night.  Otherwise, I had no idea what to expect.

D-Man in the Waters, which had premiered at the Joyce Theatre in New York City in early 1989, is danced to the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major for Strings, Op. 20.  The music has the intimacy of chamber music and the strength, projection, and romance of a nineteenth-century German symphony—Telemann crossed with Beethoven.  I don’t know how to accurately describe its melodic structure.  I can only say that it is, in my ears, a looping thing.  It proceeds by heightened repetition of sinuous phrases; it is an inescapable vortex, hinted at in the opening allegro and almost demonic in the closing presto.

I knew none of that when the curtain went up on a bare stage bathed in a blue-green light and the dancers emerged from the wings, one by one, swiftly lining up, one in front of the other, the first circling around to the head of the line once the last was in place, branching out at a ninety-degree angle, then doing it all again while frantically crossing their forearms in front of their faces.  Two minutes into half an hour’s performance and the pace was already relentless.

There were plenty of moments in which the relationship between the dancer and the floor came to the fore as dancers slipped and cascaded, only to be caught by a fellow, whirled along to another partner.  Sometimes the dancers literally dove for the floor to execute a breaststroke or a backstroke, a cruel gesture that saw them struggle and sweat and move not an inch forward.

In one extraordinary sequence early on, Alvin Aviles, shaven-headed, intensely dramatic , serious as a heart attack, performed an extraordinary dive, one that was executed from the platform of the stage floor.  Leaping into the air as though propelled by the plasticity of the diving board, he twisted into a tumbling descent, breaking his fall—or the surface of the water—with a handstand before dropping his body prone to the floor and miming the stroke of a crawl for an instant before bounding back to his feet.

Even in this first movement, the exertion, the dependence, the determination of the dancers was truly awesome to behold.  Even as the strings crescendoed, the grunts and cries of the dancers came through, the muscular work of dancing finding vocal expression.

That I can remember this much detail is due not just to the impact the piece made on me when I saw it that first time; I’ve been lucky enough to see the first part, the allegro, many times in the years since.  It’s also the only part of the dance that appears to be available on video.  This excerpt—a mere three minutes of the opening as recently danced by the Alvin Ailey Company—is beautifully filmed for all it brevity.  Check out Michael Francis McBride when he takes that diving plunge.

I don’t remember the andante at all, but the final movement, the presto, is burned in my brain forever.  And I know I remember that first night, because Jones has re-choreographed the piece in the years since.

By the time the dancers were approaching the final minutes of the performance, I could sense how they were pouring every last scrap of energy into their steps.  They were sweating profusely, the droplets quite literally flying off them as they spun and somersaulted around the stage.  I could feel the physical exhaustion, even from a seat in the balcony, and I could sense that it captured the emotional exhaustion that the company must have experienced in the wake of Zane and Acquavella’s deaths.

And yet there was still that tremendous vigor.  It seemed a refusal to submit to expenditure and at the same time a defiant rebirth.  In the program notes for the performance Jones offered an epigraph, borrowed from Jenny Holzer: “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.”  As the dance drew to a close the watery, celestial, dreamy blue-green light, shot through with a suggestion of gold, seemed to be the setting  for that dream.  The way the dancers had supported one another throughout, the ways in which they had literally thrown their bodies across the stage to the insistent strains of the Mendelssohn Octet, were all embodiments of a way to survive, and they were all infused with joy.

In the final moments of the presto, the violas began a furious passage of eighth-notes, eventually passing the phrases on to the first violin.  As the notes spun and rocked back and forth, the dancers began to run in a circle on the stage, seeming to accelerate with every turn.  Suddenly they were calling out again—that first night I assumed that they were exhorting one another to keep up the pace, though I later learned that Jones had asked them to call out the names of beloved dead.  They continued to circle, drawing the circle tighter, smaller, faster.

Suddenly Aviles broke loose from the whirl, and the rest of the company magically fell into two straight lines facing one another.  Aviles completed one last turn and leapt in between the paired dancers.  He landed facedown in their outstretched arms; and without a pause, as the strings sounded their four final notes, the company launched him up into the air above their heads.  With Aviles flying upwards, the last E-flat chord was struck and the stage went utterly black.

You never saw Aviles fall.

He flew up, and he disappeared into darkness and silence.

In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.

 ***

 The video below presents the full first movement of D-Man in the Waters, but sadly the quality of the recording is pretty bad.  It is worth watching nonetheless to see how Jones develops and deploys his imagery and motifs, and for the splendid performances of the dancers.  Jones is working on a documentary about Demian Acquavella that will apparently include more footage of the company’s performances of D-Man.  Until then, this grainy upload will have to suffice.  It thrills me every time I watch it.

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