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The Mind Behind the Movement : Bill T. Jones Uses Residency to Find Revelation in Dance

February 21, 1996|JENNIFER FISHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

RIVERSIDE — Bill T. Jones was dancing and talking at the same time, in a way that made everyone watch attentively. Later, he would say how much he wanted dance to have the power that poetry and politics have to change the world. But this Sunday-evening event was just the first in Jones' weeklong residency as the 1996 Regents' Lecturer at the University of California, Riverside. For now, it was enough to get a taste of the personal charisma and ideas sparked by the artistic director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

In the small UC Riverside dance studio theater, Jones, 44, performed a movement phrase and described his actions aloud, mechanically at first. Then he connected words to his limbs more freely, moving to the rhythm of his ranging thoughts. His circling arm was suddenly "bowling for dollars" or "folding like the sheets in a Marquez novel." As he repeated the steps, running in a circle or displacing a hip, more thoughts emerged--about loving and resenting God, about censoring sexual thoughts, about whether or not the audience was restless yet, about having hope.

The exercise was simple, but it looked like meditation, concentrated and ceremonial yet relaxed, with funny little details and comments that appeared for a moment, then evaporated. The audience was charmed. Later, a student would claim to have found the answer to a particular problem in her doctoral dissertation through something Jones did.

To dance and talk, then ask for feedback--which Jones eagerly did after his performance--he'd come to the right place. UC Riverside has the kind of dance majors who study technique and with whom Jones would meet later to talk about their choreography. But the university also offers North America's first doctoral program in dance history and theory, a program that has an enduring investment in dancing and talking. It is to benefit both of these disciplines that the university has brought Jones to Riverside, that and to put him to work sorting through the papers of his partner dancer and visual artist Arnie Zane (who died in 1988, but whose name remains in Jones' company's title), which are currently at the UCR California Museum of Photography.

If, for the general population, academic dance studies is a field just slightly better known than the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa, it's much more familiar to Jones. He has always been prone to analyze his work in search of new directions. "I have questions about the work I'm doing now, and this is a time for replenishing in a way I don't have time to do on the road," he said between his performance and a reception given for him.

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"I've never wanted to be defined purely as a moving body. I'm interested in the world of ideas. Although I do get impatient with intellectuals, when people are not in their bodies, when they're only in their minds. But I find it very liberating to be in a place where people believe that by studying dance, we can learn something about the culture at large."

As he talked, he was interrupted by various audience members who thanked him for the evening's solos, or wanted to continue discussions started from the stage.

A few people there had known Jones' work since the early iconoclastic duets with Zane. More had seen his 1990 tour-de-force work, "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land,"which dealt with questions about racism, homosexual bias and religious doubt. And most everyone knew about his exploration of life-and-death issues in "Still/Here"--seen in Los Angeles last April and still touring--through its targeting in a New Yorker magazine-inspired debate about so-called "victim art."

But most people this night seem to want to connect personally. A painter-filmmaker who had already said that he had never seen another artist working on so many levels at once, wanted to bring Jones a film he made on yoga. "I'd love to see that," Jones said. A graduate student who wanted an appointment is told "I work in the studio in the afternoon, but I hope we can talk after one of these events." To everyone, he gave his full attention and interest, nodding, asking questions, thanking them for coming.

On Monday morning, at the California Museum of Photography in downtown Riverside, Jones began work on the Arnie Zane archive. In a cool, concrete gray room, Jones perused scrapbooks, letters and random notes. The process became a performance in itself, oral dance history, videotaped and witnessed by a handful of interested observers.

As Jones read letters, contracts and random dialogues and poems on which early Jones/Zane dances were based, he occasionally demonstrated dance phrases, or shook his head ruefully when he realized how much Zane wrote down, and how he himself had been more interested at the time in improvising and moving on.

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