As contemporary choreographers reexamine the bedrock relationship between music and dance, a kind of coincidental festival of their findings has taken place on local stages.
Featuring the Orion String Quartet and members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, weekend performances at UCLA by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company explored such issues as how to make musicians more than mere accompanists and how to make fresh, personal dances from the masterworks of the Western classical tradition.
Like the new choreography by postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown (also recently seen on the Westwood campus) and the collaboration between cellist Walter Haman and modern dancer Jose Navas at the Skirball Cultural Center last week, Jones' Royce Hall programs on Friday and Saturday represented an adventure in collaboration.
In this context, his oldest piece, "D-Man in the Waters" from 1989 (revised nine years later), lost its original moorings as a tribute to a fallen colleague and became instead a reminder of the wedding of breezy athleticism and classical music that Paul Taylor shaped into a modern dance subgenre.
Borrowing Mendelssohn's Op. 20 Octet for a celebration of youth, energy and togetherness, "D-Man" began with magically dissolving/re-forming clusters of dancers, motifs such as upturned hands shimmering in front of faces and genial defiance of gender norms: Leah Cox and Ayo Janeen Jackson as female cavaliers supporting and turning hunky Denis Boroditski, for example.
Gradually, however, the images of dancers bearing lifeless comrades (Jackson, in particular) and of Wen-Chung Lin emerging as a symbol of transcendence anchored the dancers' soaring prowess in references to the AIDS crisis. But in musicality, the piece never strayed from conventional sight-sound synchronization. However unorthodox the movement, it reinforced Mendelssohn diligently, phrase by phrase.
Similarly, the untitled solo that company dancer Eric Bradley choreographed and danced to a Ravel quartet intuitively reflected the contours of the score through a flurry of dodgy, darting steps and, especially, his imaginative, flyaway arm motion.
Other approaches, however, dominated Jones' three West Coast premieres. In musicality, "Verbum" represented a declaration of independence, running alongside one of Beethoven's late quartets (Op. 135), but very post-Cunningham in its separate-and-equal stance. Only in a mercurial solo (danced by Toshiko Oiwa on Friday, Malcolm Low on Saturday) did sustained points of contact occur; otherwise the piece emphasized stage design: silvery, sleeveless Liz Prince body suits framed in Bjorn Amelan's door-like sculpture units.
Prime postmodern playoffs fueled the choreography. Sometimes the dancers strolled nonchalantly; elsewhere they executed complex technical feats. Some passages offered an overload of gestural games; others displayed the cast's mastery of convulsive torso shakes. If you wanted liberation from the rules of dance-making, you found it in this company showpiece--a work every bit as arbitrary, impulsive and unpredictable as you could imagine but danced with spectacular assurance.
Along with confirming Jones' eclecticism, "Black Suzanne" used the Shostakovich Op. 11 Prelude and Scherzo to support a quasi-dramatic action-plan: gladiatorial combat between Jackson and Oiwa. Each stood high above the floor, balanced atop other dancers as if on moving platforms or chariots.
Amelan's giant smirking, eight-petaled flower served as backdrop, but the red Prince costumes and red floor mats reinforced the sense of warriors-in-training: lots of stomping, staggering and collapsing, displays of brute force (Jackson lifting Boroditski on her back), with the music serving as a generalized soundtrack.
Paradoxically, Jones' "WorldWithout/In" utterly distanced itself from its music--two pieces by contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag--but placed four musicians from Chamber Music Society Two onstage as both performers and onlookers in a nightmarish ritual of death, resurrection and transformation.
Danced against the score and sometimes in long stretches of silence, the piece deployed a number of bizarre characters on and under a towering pyramid designed by Amelan. Daniel Russell Kubert, for instance, played a self-flagellating ninja watched by a greedy gnome played by Asli Bulbul and eventually united with him in a floral people-tower.
But Jones resolutely avoided linear dramaturgy, so the neo-Expressionist result sent as many ticket holders fleeing into the night as giving it a standing ovation. Two weeks past his 50th birthday, he continues to challenge and provoke, take risks and experiment.
Besides the dancers previously listed, the company included Germaul Yusef Barnes and Catherine Cabeen. The Orion musicians were Daniel Phillips, Todd Phillips, Steven Tenenbom and Timothy Eddy. Chamber Music Society Two enlisted Timothy Fain, Ruggero Allifranchini, Hsin-Yun Huang and Sophie Shao.