If what you want from a dance performance is to sit back and be pleasurably entertained, then Bill T. Jones, the dancer-choreographer who appeared at the University of Maryland Monday evening, is probably not for you, even though there is certainly pleasure to be had in watching his multifaceted virtuosity, and entertainment in the quicksilver tracings of his mind.
If, however, for the sake of an artistic experience that goes well beyond the conventional, you are willing to be mentally and emotionally challenged, upset and even bruised, then you may well agree that Jones is one of the most vivid and compelling dance artists before the public today.
The sources of Jones' dance works are diverse. In many pieces, he talks at you while he moves, using words with the same dexterity and seductive rhythms that guide his sleek body; he'll talk about himself, about dancing, about you the audience, about the world. His movement is equally multifarious, with roots in modern dance, ballet, jazz, contact improvisation, mime and other idioms. Both words and movement are salted with intelligence, wit, irony and anger. Often his "subject" is his own life, his experiences as a black and an artist. You're never quite sure where he draws the line between truth and fictive performance, but that's part of the scary fascination of what he's doing. He compels you to question virtually every assumption about dance and dancers that you bring to the theater. A degree of improvisation enters into almost all his work, and a certain concomitant anarchy as well -- Jones pushes himself, and his audience, to the edge.
Feverish imagination he's got, too. "Three Dances," a premiere, was a soliloquy on the coercive forces shaping dance, from academic tradition, to musical accompaniment, to artistic ideals, to critics and the media. Another premiere, "Intentional Divisions/Implicit Connections" -- involving an incredibly agile and charismatic partner, Julie West -- explored extreme conditions, from the infirmities of age to the heights of acrobatic daring. "Floating the Tongue" (1979) was an autobiographical stream of consciousness made audible and visible. It wouldn't be overstating the case to call the entire program a tour de force.