SOME WERE IN TEARS AFTER CLASS.
Kar-on Brown Lehman's students at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts were about to present their latest dance creations at Pasadena City College as part of the high school's Student Choreography Showcase 2005. So they'd been honored that, two days before the event, they would have the opportunity to present those creations before guest instructor Bill T. Jones, artistic director of the acclaimed Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
But that was before Jones shredded them to pieces.
Even if one is not an anxious high school dance student, there is something about the tall, regal, unsmiling Jones that produces the nagging feeling that one is doing something wrong. What remains unclear -- but, surely, something.
Maybe it's his perfect posture, ruler straight, better than possible. Maybe it's the frequency with which he lobs the word "should" at the students: "You know Nijinsky's 'Afternoon of a Faun'? You should. Do you know the work of Roy Lichtenstein? You should. Do you know what kitsch is? You should."
Then there are the "shouldn'ts."
The kids' movement choices are too literal: "Don't give me television. There's a lot of Hollywood," he scolds. Or too pretty: "You want to look good always. Ever see a woman with her teeth knocked out?" he demands of a lovely young thing gamely attempting to portray a battered woman. The students are experimenting with contemporary choreography, but "ballet is winning," he charges.
One ebullient young woman tells him about her work on the technical crew for the coming show. She loves the performing arts, but her career goal is to become a physical therapist, possibly for dancers. As far as Jones is concerned, that ends the conversation.
"I like to talk to artists, to people who are serious," he snaps. "I don't come out here with a cold to talk to people who aren't serious." In fact, anyone who doesn't have a clear artistic vision by high school might as well hang up his or her dance shoes. "It has to be a language that you can't live without," he says. "Because believe me, the world can live without you."
Still, Jones manages to soften his blows by throwing himself into the ring with the students.
"Everything I say to you, I say to myself," he says. "The most intimidating thing you can do is to show your work before another artist -- and a stranger. It is very brave and very important, and I hope you keep that strength with you the rest of your life."
Later, Lehman recalls that when the class was over and students were making their way to a technical rehearsal, "some were crying. Some were a little upset. But in the end, they discovered that his information had really helped them." And though it was too late to change their choreography, it wasn't too late to change their performances. "They internalized what he said, and you saw the difference in all the performances, and it was really very beautiful."
Decades of controversy
The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, appearing next weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. An international tour will include other California stops: UC Riverside, April 10; UC San Diego, April 12; and San Francisco, May 19 to 22.
The 53-year-old Jones has been the company's sole leader since 1988. That's when Zane, his companion as well as professional associate, succumbed to AIDS-related lymphoma. Their dance relationship had begun in 1982, and the pair had made the most of their differences onstage: Jones is tall and black, with a dancer's physique; Zane, who started out as a photographer, was short, white and squat. Their inventive partnering soon made them the critical darlings of the postmodern dance scene.
Some reviewers, though, have dismissed works by Jones for using the same sort of literal approach that he criticized in the young dancers. He's been alternately praised and vilified for infusing racial and sexual politics into his choreography with such pieces as 1990's "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land." That toured internationally and made headlines because it involved crowds of naked community members at each stop.
Jones' tendency to take on social injustice has also spilled over into his business decisions. In 2000, he canceled a planned company performance at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., in response to a call from the NAACP to boycott South Carolina's tourist industry unless the state stopped flying the Confederate flag over its Capitol building in Columbia.
In an interview after the high school class, he at first shrugs when reminded of his critics.
"They may be right. I'm a chest-pounder," he says. "At times, I do literal gestures. There's nothing wrong with being literal -- it's how you use it. Sometimes I set out to be literal because that is what's needed to go out to average people. And I don't know how you find the balance.