Evening the score

Here’s one glimpse of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in motion: Upon a plainly lit stage, the multiethnic troupe members are methodically arranged, allowing themselves just enough space to enter and exit the hive they’re shaping. Lithe bodies move in and out of the center, going on- and off-stage, as free-flowing appendages whirl within a momentary tranquility. The austerely dressed dancers partake in parallel play, where the movement of each individual breeds momentum in the next. Figures break from the assemblage, then melt into the floor. Nimble frames converge to release physical sparks. The dancers’ ease shows their formal training and their devotion to this expressive amalgam of modern, ballet, gymnastics, folk dancing and divine inspiration.

This weekend there’ll be something else in the mix. Musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Orion String Quartet ascend from the pit of dance accompaniment to join the New York-based company on stage in performances that promise to be unpredictable in the most tantalizing way.

Artistic director and choreographer Bill T. Jones studied classical ballet and at the State University of New York at Binghamton before founding American Dance Asylum in 1973. He and fellow SUNY graduate (and partner) Arnie Zane then went on to perform nationally and internationally as soloists and as a duo. Now the multicultural dance company they founded in 1982 continues what they built over 11 years of collaboration, which ended with Zane’s death. Since its inception, the company has garnered critical acclaim for its provocative work with artists from a vast array of disciplines. From the melodies of chamber orchestras to the words of writer Toni Morrison and the sounds of drummer Max Roach, Jones’ choreography has risen to meet its strange bedfellows.

Politically and personally challenging compositions are the lifeblood of Jones’ work. In such pieces as Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land and Still/Here, the choreographer that the Dance Heritage Coalition calls “an irreplaceable dance treasure” shines while delicately incorporating life’s philosophical journeys into physically demanding creations.

Jones’ ensemble can be best characterized by its fluidity and resistance to categorization. From minimalist stage dressing to the constant interplay between musicians and dancers, the choreography often evokes an elemental naturalism. Moving bodies effortlessly transform themselves from raging flames and shooting sparks into raindrops falling.

But, while driven by dance, this weekend’s events are not exclusively for a “dance” crowd. In the latest Jones/Zane Company works, those usually referred to as “the accompaniment” become integral members of the cast and their music is foregrounded. These performers are invited up from the orchestra pit, onto the stage, to weave their silken thread into a luscious quilt.

The idea is to negotiate the chasm between live musical performance and dance is negotiated in a way that encourages the two mediums to complement and challenge each other. Ideally, this mutability then transfers to the audience and creates a vibrant assembly of dance and music fans who forget which medium they’ve previously declared their loyalty to.

In this weekend’s performances, the Orion String Quartet, members of the Chamber Music Society and additional guests are scheduled to play works by Beethoven, Kurtág, Mendelssohn, Ravel and Shostakovich. For chamber music fans, this should be a rare opportunity to behold a stunning visual interpretation of the music. For dance enthusiasts, it’s an equally unusual occasion to see movement in direct dialogue with its accompaniment.


Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company appears at the Power Center for the Performing Arts (121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor), Saturday, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 12 at 4 p.m. Call the UMS ticket office at 734-764-2538.

Katie McGowan writes about dance for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]