by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
UW WORLD DANCE SERIES
BILL T. JONES, LECTURER:
IN CONFUSING TIMES'
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
UW WORLD DANCE SERIES
BILL T. JONES /
ARNIE ZANE COMPANY
THE ANALOGY TRILOGY,
PART 2 - LANCE: PRETTY
AKA THE ESCAPE ARTIST
FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
In a wonderful lecture at the University of Washington on January 30th Bill T. Jones spoke movingly about his Analogy Trilogy - three evenings of dance presented together for the first time by the Meany Center for the Performing Arts. I wish I could have been present for all three evenings since the one part I did get to see, Lance: Pretty AKA The Escape Artist, was fabulous. Yet just as fabulous was Bill T. Jones' qualities as a lecturer in an event that went far beyond the standard artist's talk.
The first two dances of The Analogy Trilogy are focused on the lives of very different real-life people whom Jones interviewed at length: a 95-year-old French-Jewish nurse who worked for the underground resistance in World War II, and Jones' own nephew, a beautiful, drug-addicted rent boy navigating the club culture of the 1980s and '90s. The third dance in the trilogy is a response to W.G. Sebald's complex novel The Emigrants (1992) and its principal character, Ambros Adelwarth. I was so fascinated by Jones' discussion of this fictional character that I ran out the next day and bought Michael Hulse's English translation. I'd never heard of Sebald (shame on me, an English professor) but find myself as drawn into his intricate, multi-layered world as Jones was. I would love to have seen how Jones connected these disparate narratives into a coherent whole, especially since Jones himself, in his quiet, authentic way, is one of the most compelling speakers I've ever seen. Indeed, my lecture buddy and I felt so uplifted that we left Kane Hall with renewed hope in humanity.
Everything you would expect in a famous choreographer's lecture was present: an explanation of the origins of the trilogy, a film clip that was analyzed, a brief history of his development as a dancer and the conceptualism that influenced him, and his response to the political turmoil of Black Lives Matter and the Trump administration. Yet all of it was delivered by a man who is simultaneously powerful and humble; a man who, at the height of his fame, asked himself if he was still making art or if he was comfortable with success. He talked about rigor in art - about being in a studio in New York City and witnessing an experimental work so boringly focused on its concept that he was driven to the understanding that 'art is not about my pleasure - it's about an idea! The rigorous investigation of an idea.'
Clearly The Analogy Trilogy is the rigorous investigation of an idea - what makes humans do what they do; how they find meaning in the confusing and dangerous times in which they live; what makes them go wrong and how (or whether) they go right again. Jones investigates these complexities, both in dance and conversation, with seriousness and compassion. For instance, one of the most uplifting parts of the evening was how Jones handled the Q&A at the end. Instead of the ordinary speaker's polite patience with those who hold forth instead of asking a question, or who ramble on and on, Bill T. Jones looked at each interlocutor with serious attention. He listened hard, even when the audience got restless, wishing the speaker to sit down or get to the point (we've all been there, right?). Jones, however, zeroed in on each speaker, bringing person after person into focus, waiting for a clue that allowed him to ask a key question - 'Are you a dancer yourself?' 'Have we ever met?' 'Are you talking about race?' 'Do you know why you're asking a question?' - always said earnestly, as though they were sitting together in Starbucks having a heart-to-heart over lattes.
Each person responded to his attention in ways that seemed reflective and even transformative. Here was an immensely famous and accomplished man looking at them, seeing them, and caring enough about them to listen carefully and then ask a hard question in a kindly way - ending in an embrace or handshake. Jones addressed race with simple directness. 'I love you being here, but it's not a diverse group - this is my life,' he said, looking at us, a typical Seattle audience. To a questioner on how black people can work in a white-dominated art, he said 'The people who came out tonight are not the same color as me but their hearts vibrate - you got to make peace with that - you got to, or you'll be very sad.' To a young woman who talked in agitated circles he said 'Are you a writer?' She was brought up cold, but confessed that she was. 'If that's real,' he said, 'and I think it is, you're going to be on fire! How do you break through? You own words and what will be your criteria for judging it?' The audience sat up and took notice - suddenly we could see what he saw - anxious talent looking for direction. It was a beautiful moment, and a moment that spoke to his theme - rigor in art - which was the subtext of 'Finding Meaning in Confusing Times.'
Hearing the lecture at Kane Hall was a great introduction to The Analogy Trilogy, even though I wasn't able to see all three evenings. Yet of the three I feel very fortunate to have seen the second in the series about Jones' own nephew, Lance - a beautiful and troubled young man whose path through the thickets of drug addiction and prostitution form the narrative of Lance: Pretty AKA The Escape Artist. Jones spoke about Lance in his lecture, saying that people criticized him because his first subject, Dora Amelan, focused on a woman who acted bravely in an evil time, while Lance was a 'pretty boy-gangster thug' who threw his gifts away on illness, prison and crime. Jones' response was 'Why not? What is a life well lived? Why not write about a black boy as well as a Jewish woman?' The juxtaposition of the lives in the trilogy challenge the 'life well lived' cliché and suggest (or demonstrate) what is fundamental to human endeavor and what is variable by time, circumstances, race, and opportunity.
An energetic cast of nine dancers reproduced the club styles of 1980s and '90s - rock informed by bboy moves - within the vocabulary of modern dance. Jones and Wong use a diagonal string of independent dancers whose spectacular low move solos stick together like a crazy chorus line. 'Bad Boy/Having a Party,' 'Work This Pussy,' and music of that genre are interspersed with the voices of the real Lance being interviewed by his uncle, Bill T. Jones, about what he was thinking, what he was doing, and what he plans to do next. We never have the feeling that Lance is lost or abandoned. He may be treading dangerous waters in the grip of Pretty, his powerful alter-ego, but he is also in the grip of a good uncle whose steady voice calls him back to his innate intelligence and potential.
Two dancers of very different sizes, races, and qualities of movement play the main character, Lance/Pretty. I was sorry neither the program nor the Jones/Zane website identifies the dancers in their roles since Pretty, Lance's alter-ego, is an intensely dramatic diva who dominates the boy whose body she inhabits. Pretty was danced in the diva sequences by a very tall black man dressed in white (with red socks) and a white Grace Jones-style hood, whose every gesture was at once sexy, dangerous, and controlling, like the pushiest bottom who ever lived. In the dance sequences where Lance describes his actual life - his aspirations, his sex work, his illness - he is danced by a diminutive Asian man whose small stature creates friction against his feisty argument with the world. Between the two - and those who move in and out of Lance/Pretty's life in the dance clubs, John's cars, and hospitals - we see the underworld as clearly as Milton's Pandemonium or Dante's Inferno.
Lance: Pretty AKA The Escape Artist is at once a narrative of a specific life and an analogy - a metaphor, a comparison - of life in general: it's demands, dangers and brevity; it's hope in the face of daunting odds. Bill T. Jones surprised us in his lecture by saying 'Oh, yes - Lance is alive and well and he wants to be an artist.' Not just an 'escape artist' - though he had to escape to save his life and have a chance to control his future - but a musical artist. Jones told him that 'You're not an artist until you make something beautiful out of the ugliness of your life,' though he told us in his lecture that he might say it differently today: 'You're not an artist until you make something.' And if making rigorous art is the answer to confusing times, Bill T. Jones has made something rigorous and inspiring to shed light on our own troubled historical moment.
Kudos to the Meany Center for the Performing Arts for bringing the whole trilogy together and for offering the public a free lecture so that everyone in town could hear the legendary Bill T. Jones talk about his work, philosophy, and hope for the future. He is a great man, and it was a great gift to Seattle to have him here.
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