- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bill T. Jones, leader of the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company he founded in 1982 with the late Mr. Zane, has been an enormously polarizing artist throughout his career.

Black, homosexual and HIV-positive, he has always been a high-profile figure, cutting a swath with his focus on the hot-button topics he’s chosen to put on stage — from race relations (“Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) to AIDS (“Still/Here”).

This has brought him attention that extends beyond the dance world — commissions from major opera companies here and abroad, a New Yorker profile, MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, and, 10 years ago, a slashing attack by a New Yorker critic who refused to see his latest work. Her review consisted of a diatribe on so-called “victim art.”

Mr. Jones and his company, not seen here for several years, gave three performances at the Kennedy Center beginning last Thursday. They were a case study in what makes Mr. Jones’ art so controversial.

Thursday evening was essentially a pastiche, a solo evening by Mr. Jones interspersed with soulful dancing by a handsome couple and embellished with stunning, evocative sets and lighting.

“Blind Date,” a Washington premiere given Friday and Saturday night, was crammed with the choreographer’s big ideas on the state of our world and involved the whole company.

The solo program, “As I Was Saying … An Evening of Dance, Text and Music with Bill T. Jones and Friends,” was a bit of this and that. It included a tale that was as harrowing as the story of Medea’s revenge, some serenely beautiful dancing by Leah Cox and Donald C. Shorter Jr., a painful account of a child’s death in Rwanda and an intriguing duet between Mr. Jones and Nurit Pacht, an attractive violinist in a peacock green strapless evening dress, who not only played the Bach Chaconne with grace but did it while trailing across the stage after Mr. Jones.

What tied it all together was — sometimes not much. But Mr. Jones’ charismatic performance as actor as well as dancer, fascinating digital projections that evoked an other-worldly, dream-like atmosphere, and stunning lighting by Robert Wierzel brought a certain cohesion to the program. It created an intense, abstract-yet-dramatic atmosphere on stage that let the audience make its own connections.

“Blind Date,” the new work, is confrontational, harsh, earnest and strongly theatrical. It features a text spoken on stage and projected on screen taken from words published in the Marine Corps Gazette in the late ‘80s that resonate today, and sections from Leviticus 20, “Punishments for Sin,” read in a stumbling manner as if by a child. Clearly Mr. Jones is plunging into major quandaries of our time — which makes him a hero to some and anathema to others.

Among the artistic resources he uses is an imaginative score composed and/or arranged by Daniel Bernard Roumain that includes a traditional Irish folk song; “Security” by Otis Redding; and, again, Bach, this time a fugue and adagio —played live, which added immeasurably to the program’s impact.

Another asset was his dedicated group of dancers. Mr. Jones’ strength lies in his innate theatricality; the dance passages per se add something to the total picture, but the movement is generic rather than adding anything original or pointedly underscoring the emotional message.

Mr. Jones’ power to connect is impressive. That was clear when a record number of audience members elected to stay for a Kennedy Center-sponsored post-performance discussion Friday evening instead of bolting to their cars. Mr. Jones was feisty, relaxed, informal and managed to challenge everyone in discussion, just the way he does on stage.

**1/2

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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