Bill T. Jones's new work, "As I Was Saying . . . an Evening of Dance, Text and Music," provokes a collision of feelings: admiration and revulsion, enjoyment of his storytelling and the wish to shut him up.
Jones is at his seductive best in this complicated program, which opened his company's three-night run Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. His powers as a performer have never been sharper, even though the work as a whole -- unrelated pieces, some solos, some featuring two other dancers and two musicians, all performed without intermission -- was not easy to digest even in its strongest moments.
Jones is blessed with a beautiful physique and a sly, wise ability to use it, undiminished despite being in his fifties, and that was in gleaming evidence here. But this program's success also rode on his command of complex ideas and emotions, and on strong design elements, particularly the lighting work of Robert Wierzel. Jones put the program together with calculated effect, building up our trust so he could come in close and wallop us right between the eyes.
First up was "With the Good Lord," which began and ended with Jones alone and in darkness. He's moving gently, a bit hesitantly in the shadows to an old, scratchy recording of Lord Buckley. When he's joined by two other dancers (Leah Cox and Donald C. Shorter Jr.), the space becomes illuminated and opens up, and we sense a lightening effect in Jones as well. He offers a hand to each; they dance together. Jones blends seamlessly with his considerably younger partners. They mime sharing a joint, with exquisite manners. It's all very warm and convivial. Is this Jones's wish, not to be left alone with heavy thoughts? For eventually the two dancers leave, and the stage darkens, and Jones reprises his brooding opening solo. In our last glimpse of him, he stands in silhouette, posed and stiff, and sad.
In the next work, "Do You Be," Jones appears on video, accompanied by the mating-call caterwauling of singer-performer Meredith Monk. Images of Jones looking snappy in a fedora and pleated trousers are overlaid with ghostly half-images of the same man, so it looks as if he's performing a pas de deux with his own vanishing soul. Cut to a sequence of Jones naked, doffing his hat and breaking into joyful laughter. Enviable laughter, of a man in his ease. We love this guy.
Jones has been seducing us -- presenting himself poignantly in the first piece, and then so upliftingly cheered in the second that our hearts are his by the time the third work, "22," begins.
It starts out as an abstract solo, a series of 21 poses. Jones moves through each with exquisite control while speaking into a microphone strapped Madonna-style around his head. He repeats the movement sequence over and over, telling us his whimsical labels for each pose. Then, still dancing, he starts to weave in an extended monologue.
"This is about stories," he says. "This is about putting it together." The first story is about his grandmother, known for whipping the okra and the peppers as they grew in her garden, and also known for her tales. Jones tells us one, a gruesome fable set in the impoverished South that involves unspeakable acts done to a child. You can guess the outcome halfway through, yet still Jones drags you through it, luxuriating in the horrible details. He also interweaves another story, one he heard on the radio about a photojournalist in genocidal Rwanda who discovers a live little boy in a pit of slaughtered humanity.
So we're all down in the mud together, Jones and his velvety baritone filling our minds with pictures we don't want to see. Occasionally he stops talking, and fantastic lighting displays take over -- an explosion of blue that makes him look suspended in fog; spectral digital projections of a child at play. The slick technology puts Jones in a cool, polished setting, while his words turn the stomach. You can't listen dispassionately, and that is Jones's point.
Like one of those clever multiple-plot films -- "Traffic" comes to mind -- Jones sets seemingly disparate elements in motion and expertly knits them together. It all dovetails in the end: the macabre fairy tale, the real-life horror and the digital projections of the blissful fair-haired child, safe from the ravages of poverty and war. And through it all, Jones keeps moving through his series of postures, repeating them like a mantra, surely keeping himself from spiraling out of control with rage.
After this, the rest of the program felt like a bit of a letdown. The tension evaporated and never returned. Cox and Shorter came back for "Duet," with music from Madagascar and the Ivory Coast that showcased their warmth and rapport, and a distinctly soft, plush way of moving. But although it was pleasant, it felt aimless, as did "Chaconne," where Jones pursued Nurit Pacht around the stage while she played a Bach partita for violin.
Perhaps Jones realized the end had fizzled. He wasn't ready to leave, and he capped the evening with an encore solo that he improvised to Blossom Dearie's honey-drenched rendition of "Surrey With a Fringe on Top" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!" Jones swirled his hips invitingly, he shimmied, he rippled, he gave full vent to his inner boppiness. He left us bathed in sunshine, but the ghosts he raised -- indelibly, unforgettably -- continue to haunt.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company concludes its engagement tonight with the full-company work "Blind Date."
Bill T. Jones combined whimsical poses and dance steps with emotionally draining stories in "As I Was Saying."