For the dance community, a new political work from outspoken choreographer Bill T. Jones brings the kind of buzz that surrounded Bruce Springsteen's post-election album. But fate put an added spin on Jones's "Blind Date," which opened Friday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, a night when a late-running session in the House of Representatives saw congressmen nearly come to blows over the war in Iraq and carelessly levy charges of cowardice.
These are the very issues Jones spotlights in his evening-length work, a raw treatise on weakness and strength, questions and certainty in a climate where personal expression of all kinds is increasingly scrutinized.
Jones could not have timed the Washington premiere more perfectly. But though it is full of heart and deep searching, the work's emotional impact is sporadic and curiously tentative. "Blind Date" reflects the confusion, anger and yearning of its creator, and does not lead to any kind of easy understanding. There are no answers here. Even in its promising ambiguity, it feels unfinished and scattered, and comes across as a work in progress that itself requires further scrutiny.
At the outset, we are set up for easy affirmation of liberal tenets. Before the lights go down, several video screens dominate the stage, bearing bits of text with assertions such as "A fair, just and productive society absolutely depends on religious tolerance" and "The greatest human crimes have been committed in the name of God." But this is as concrete as "Blind Date" gets. Once the performance begins, we're thrust into a world of surrealism and metaphor. Throughout the course of the evening, there could be a dreamy video sequence or perhaps a rambling taped interview with one of the dancers in the ethnically diverse company. There might be a slashing, rigorously structured dance, or Jones in a dialogue with another dancer dressed in military camouflage while their words scroll across the stage behind them. Sometimes this was all happening at once, a reflection of the routine bombardment of sound and images we all encounter.
The high-tech set design is the work of longtime Jones collaborator Bjorn G. Amelan and video artist Peter Nigrini. Throughout the evening their work wavered between fruitful juxtaposition and sensory overload. The element of absurdity was clear in a recurring image of yellow rubber ducks. Early in "Blind Date," they streamed arcade-style along an overhead screen. At one point, a dancer donned a duck costume while a voice-over recounted how wearing the uniform, as a publicity stunt for a fictional fast-food chain, had given the young man "a sense of discipline. He had a sense of purpose!" You couldn't miss the military analogy. Later in the evening, huge cutouts of ducks dangled over the stage, scarred, slashed and bloodied. Absurdity had gotten its teeth kicked in.
In one of the work's most physical moments, a game of "trust" is given a twist as the dancers take turns calling out "Me!" and plunging to the floor, hoping to be caught by their colleagues. Usually, they were, but a few times they weren't. Sometimes there were more dancers in need of help (cries of "Me!" coming from all over the stage) than ones available to give it. Jones seemed to be calling personal and group responsibility into question. Is it okay to hog the group's resources and leave out others in need? Can we trust a society with divided attention?
Jones himself appears on the sidelines as a kind of Everyman, looking devastatingly ordinary, a tired-looking middle-aged fellow in an undershirt and slacks, smoking a cigarette, assuring us that he's able to cut down on the habit. It is a clever act -- he was deliberately toning down his talent for electrifying the stage, a talent he had displayed in "As I Was Saying" last Thursday. His average-guy persona is even more compelling as we follow his uncertain pas de deux with the man in uniform, and finally see him erotically entwined with a male company member clothed only in his underwear.
As other dancers in varying stages of undress venture onto the stage and pair up, biblical pronouncements against incest and other forms of sexual deviance are read in the halting cadence of a small child (or rather, someone doing a poor job of speaking like a child, which undermined this scene's effect). Jones seems to ask: How much of this do we buy, as a society? Can we pick and choose among longstanding moral dictates?
The final image, a wild, cut-loose dance party set to composer Daniel Bernard Roumain's tribal beat, is a picture of what might be lost, in Jones's view, as we stay the course. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness could hardly be more aptly depicted -- yet as Jones has illustrated over the course of the evening, nothing is truly sure.