Dance Review: "A Quarreling Pair" by Bill T. Jones, at the Kennedy Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009

It turns out claustrophobia, isolation and narrow-mindedness can be danced -- who knew? -- and can also be surprisingly funny. Bill T. Jones works this miracle and more in his loopy vaudeville romp "A Quarreling Pair," where circus tricks have a lyrical grace and hand gestures speak with operatic grandeur.

Nothing is what you expect here, starting with the premise. Two sheltered sisters who live together in smothering closeness would seem to offer thin material for dancing, but Jones turns their story, based on a puppet play by Jane Bowles, into a sprawling tragicomic quest for personal salvation.

Maybe Jones was juiced up by his successful Broadway foray, earning a 2007 Tony for his choreography in "Spring Awakening." Maybe it's just artistic evolution. But "A Quarreling Pair," performed by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday (and again last night), represents a welcome move away from the pretentiousness that had crept into those works where Jones's presence dominated. Jones does not appear in "A Quarreling Pair," but evident throughout it are the greatest of his gifts: pungent, purposeful character development, compelling storytelling and pure-dance interludes of slippery and often deeply romantic choreography. Cartwheels and back handsprings have never looked so meltingly poetic.

There's also a refreshing playfulness and theatricality to this 2007 work. For much of this, credit longtime collaborator Bjorn G. Amelan's spare set design and Janet Wong's dreamily fragmented videos. Also, consider the work's source: Bowles, the wife of expatriate writer and composer Paul Bowles, fueled her works with anxiety and peopled them with all manner of eccentrics and desperate types. Jones fleshes out the play with plausibly Bowlesean oddballs and situations that, if not true to the script, derive from a similar sharp wit and sense of irony.

Key to holding the whole wriggling mass together is George Lewis Jr., who is a freewheeling emcee, ringleader and guitarist, as apt to clamber onstage and comment on the characters as to keep the work's melodic line flowing through songs by Bob Dylan and his own electric compositions.

But Jones's masterstroke is in how he portrays sisters Harriet and Rhoda. At first we see them only through an illuminated screen, looming in silhouette like a pair of Indonesian shadow puppets. In this boxlike hell, flanked by red velvet drapes, they're suffocatingly confined and every move is concentrated. Harriet, played by a man (Paul Matteson), towers over Rhoda (Leah Cox), and what's funny and absolutely mesmerizing here is not only how they speak Bowles's terse and bizarre lines (Harriet is preoccupied with a daily milk-drinking ritual) but how they accent them with gestures. When Rhoda muses about how nice it would be if the two of them were the only ones in the world and they didn't have to worry about "the others," the way she splays her long fingers like a spray of stilettos says everything about how she feels about the not-to-be-trusted world.

Still, Rhoda -- the one blessed, or perhaps cursed, with self-awareness -- finally ventures into the terrifying but tantalizing public realm, where she has a tragic encounter with a drag queen; played by Erick Montes, this guy in a skirt is as brutish as Tony Soprano. (Tracy Ann Johnson, an actress with an impressive set of pipes, portrays Rhoda in these scenes.)

Throughout the 90-minute performance you feel the intensity of Jones's curiosity about these sisters. Jones is at heart a showman, an extrovert, a voracious people person. He is clearly baffled at the inwardness of Rhoda and Harriet. One fault in this work is that Jones doesn't tunnel quite deeply enough into their world and their motivations. I waited, in vain, for some acknowledgment that maybe the sisters have a point, that their introversion is extreme but not wholly irrational. We feel a pang at the end when we see Harriet proffering a glass of milk to an empty chair, but then again, you could say the outside world is overrated. Just ask Rhoda.

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