New York

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co.

If you were to ask ten people about art and politics, probably not one would mention dance as vehicle of powerful protest. Yet the first seasons of the ’90s have already witnessed several works that tackle political issues via this unlikely form.

With Last Supper At Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, 1990, Bill T. Jones has realized a manifesto for dance protest, demonstrating how movement, music, conversation, text, costume, and set can be combined to rouse an audience to action. Here the audience absorbs political polemics while virtually dancing along with Jones in the aisles. Combining a storyteller’s gift for conveying moral messages and a choreographer’s eye for shaping bodies in space, Jones presents the facts, no matter how painful, in a viscerally exhilarating manner.

No doubt this approach to pain and politics is in his bones. From the powerful traditions of African American song and dance that functioned simultaneously as hymnals of anger and hallelujahs of pleasure—with gospel, “the blues,” tap dancing, and rap music as precedents—Jones, learned how to gather data from everyday life and to transform it into performance material. From his 17-year relationship with Arnie Zane he learned how to personalize material, to the point where partnering on stage became a means to unravel and resolve the dynamics of their love affair. Absolute honesty was the name of the game and the choreography that emerged was intense in its immediacy and poignantly conversational.

Jones maintained this unnerving sincerity in a two-and-a-half-hour saga of racism and lass of faith. To tell the story his way, he collaged a variety of genres—vaudeville, pantomime, rapping, monologue, and modern ballet—in a highly personal staging of his suffering; he even brought his mother out, to sing songs she had once sung to him. Presumably to avoid didactic righteousness, and to provide teaching aids to help the audience admit their own helplessness, he engaged in a heartfelt questioning of a real-life reverend: “Is it wrong for a man to take another man’s penis in his mouth?,” “Can you do evil when you think you are doing good?”

Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land began with all the aplomb of an American musical—Julius Hempill’s overture ignited a work that would take off with boundless imagination. In the first half, which recounts Uncle Tom’s endless betrayals, the story unravels like a loose thread on a secondhand sweater and shows through leaps in time emphasized by Huck Snyder’s costumes and masks, how the thread is attached to other texts, such as Martin Luther King’s. A dance segment punctuates the larger piece: “Eliza on the Ice” features a quartet of white-clad women, fleeing across brittle ground to “take a risk on the river of life.” And “The Dogs” is the title of another lively dance of jigs by six men in leather harnesses and muzzles. The last scene before the intermission, entitled “The Supper,” is a brightly lit tableau of frozen diners at a last-supper table staged as only a survivor of the ’80s could envision it—with a New York yuppie look, all white shirts, black trousers, and a plethora of little black dresses. These stylish party-goers soon tire of posing around the table and take to a hilarious and climactic dance of musical chairs, using high-backed art furniture to transform the stage into a battleground peopled by recalcitrant pawns.

The second half opened with Jones and the reverend in conversation and a recitation of a text from Job, reconnecting the lines of the earlier story with the search for faith. Especially searing was the staging of an excerpt from Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, 1964, that compressed 25 years into a few minutes and blasted to bits the idea that there is anything but a terrible impasse in current race relations in this country. But the last section, mostly an attempt to reach the promised land, touched a naive chord; the entire company plus extras appeared naked—60 bodies in all shapes, sizes, and colors, came together in an impossibly optimistic communal dance.

Remarkably, Jones managed to avoid the pitfalls of a pedant with a mission, while demonstrating that entertainment can serve as a vehicle for presenting carefully examined data. While this work could take some obvious editing (the last section is far too long and repetitive) and even have accommodated more actual dancing, the overall achievement is a rich contribution to American dance history. In addition, Jones’ company was at its best in this moral extravaganza, as they joined with him in conveying their own sense of the urgency of the program’s messages.

RoseLee Goldberg

#image 2#