writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

A Weekend in New York

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Doug Varone and Dancers
The JoyceOpera House, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
New York, NY
February 5-7, 2004

by Clare Croft
copyright 2004 by Clare Croft

When I return to New York, I search for three things: choreographers whose work I have not seen, choreographers whose work I love, and work that will never make it to more conservative Washington. This weekend in New York, I hit the first two. I saw the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in their twentieth anniversary program at BAM and Doug Varone and Dancers at the Joyce.

An odd path, one made of words rather than dance, has led me to Jones. I’ve never seen his company in performance, but have come to know his work through the many words, written and spoken, that surround his choreography. I first heard of Jones during the Still/Here controversy and have seen him speak numerous times. I chose to see the Thursday night performance largely because it included The Phantom Project: Still/Here Looking On, Jones’ revision of Still/Here because I wanted to go to the source—see one of the dances that led to this swirling, jumbled discourse of words. Alas, I found more words.

The Phantom Project, which closed Thursday’s program, is an onstage documentary of the 1994 piece. Jones takes the central role, explaining the making of Still/Here and the controversy that surrounded it. His dancers, yelling out the names of his other works in chronological order, locate Still/Here within the twenty years Jones has spent making dance. At times, Jones's discussion of how Still/Here changed his life and dancemaking was fascinating, but it began to feel like a never-ending journey into Jones. When the dancers and Jones danced, I found the movement beautiful, sometimes even more so because of Jones’s preceding explanation of the people that inspired it.

Jones performed a solo that included movement that terminally ill patients in Boston created as their “signatures.” He showed each pose, attributing it to its creator, then, as music began he linked them together, carving space in a pool of soft white light. The full ensemble danced another touching section to the spoken overlay of a woman describing how a doctor told her she was dying. With increasing frenzy, the dancers threw themselves across the stage and into each other arms.

The Phantom Project: Still/Here Looking On holds within it much beautiful, intense movement, performed in saturated light to haunting melodies, especially Kenneth Frazelle’s “STILL,” sung by Cassandra Wilson on Thursday. Electric guitarist Vernon Reid howled through the “HERE” finale, adding another texture to the dancers’ athleticism. Gregory Bain and Leonard Eisenberg edited the original video by Gretchen Bender and Daniel Bernard Roumain rearranged the “STILL” prologue.

I found the Phantom Project touching (though I am disappointed in how much it became about Jones and words rather than the patients and their movement that inspired it) because the name of the piece rings even more true these years later. The terminally ill people who confronted their illnesses through movement in the early nineties have most likely passed on, but they do remain here still through the dance they and Jones made.

Jones's other work on the program, There Were… revised in 2002 from the 1993 There Were So Many seems best understood as a work of poetry. Like a poet, Jones distills an action into a shape and those shapes make up the work.

Three members of Arnie Zane’s original 1987 cast for The Gift/No God Logic, Arthur Aviles, Sean Curran and Heidi Latsky, returned to open the Thursday program. Joined by current company member Germaul Yusef Barnes, the three danced the calming, but wry piece to selections from Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino.” In The Gift Zane juxtaposed beauty with humor so well that he both enthralls and winks at the audience. In my favorite moment, Latsky arches back, arms raised, sitting atop Curran who hunches over, sticking out one finger and looking at the audience with a confused face.

The four dancers walk about in low white light shining from above, all in black, except for the plaid, puffy wings on Latsky’s back. Whereas today Jones’ company members are all skinny and athletic, the return of these three former dancers hints at the past Jones’ company, where each dancer looked different than all the others, Jones and Zane reveling in the diversity. The dancers walked about, not holding themselves in or up, just walking as though they were people. No Gift is postmodernism at its best, a work that effortlessly blends the everyday with art.

Doug Varone, with his gesture based style, also draws from the everyday, but creates a much “dancier” effect than the Jones/Zane company. Varone’s 2002 The Bottomland, a celebration of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, has one of the best integrations of video and dance that I have seen. The video footage, all filmed in the Park, filled the stage’s back wall. Varone conceived and directed the video, with photography direction by Rob Draper and Vincent Gancie and production by Blue Land Media. The video introduced the dancers, then became both a backdrop for the onstage dancing and a character within the choreography. The video was most powerful in “Someone I Used to Know,” a duet for Natalie Desch and Larry Hahn. Onstage, the two jerked through a duet of a disintegrating couple, grabbing at each other, long past the possibility of a reconciling embrace. On the video screen, the couple of the past waltzed with giant smiles and gentle eyes.

Hahn retired from the Varone Company last fall, returning only as a guest artist for The Bottomland, but his presence is a welcome one. After the video begins, each dancer walks slowly onstage, stands feet together and looks at the audience. Hahn joins last, walking down the middle of the stage to end up dead center. Once he arrives, the piece can begin. Hahn remains a fine dancer, but his presence, so solid, reassuring and deep, is what makes his performance so beautiful, bringing everyone together.

All the dancers of The Bottomland interpret the sorrow and the joy in the Patty Loveless songs well. Adriane Fang brings youthful exuberance to the jumping, skipping “Pretty Little Miss” and Nina Watt, another returning dancer, performs “Sorrowful Angels” with weight and sensitivity.

In Castles, the evening’s new work, is set to Prokofiev, much of it familiar as the score for the ballet Cinderella. Much of Castles' movement relies on the peripheral: the dancers' arms and legs constantly propelled their bodies into the air and across the stage.. In two duets Varone displays his ability to show a range of emotional connections between couples, John Beasant III and Daniel Charon first, Natalie Desch and Kayvon Pourazar second. In the men’s duet, a harried mating ritual of discordant desire, the two avoid each other, then grab for the other at the last possible second. In the second duet, Desch repeatedly climbs through Pourazar’s raised arms and unfolding legs as the two struggle to find a way to hold each other, finally collapsing in each other arms at the duet’s close.

Castles works well because the costumes, lights and music all reflect and enhance the choreography. Everything about Varone’s movement dangles: the dancers toss their arms and their feet slap the floor. The Castles’ costumes, designed by Liz Prince, replicate this dangling looseness, cut at angles on the legs and arms and swaying about the dancers’ bodies. The lights, designed by Jane Cox and Joshua Epstein, particularly in the opening section where twenty or more tiny spots of light give a sense of a multitude of tiny rooms within one big space, make me wonder if each section offers a glimpse into one part of a complicated world.

The evening ended with Rise (1993), a high energy dance to John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries. A bit of an Energizer bunny dance, the pace suited Adriane Fang and Catherine Miller particularly well. Fang began with a driving solo, her intensity growing throughout, until she was throwing every inch of her body into the choreography by the first section’s close. Miller obviously enjoyed the punching angularity of the movement; her mouth fighting a smile as she danced with John Beasant III.

he first section ended in the only way such a frenetic piece could, with the dancers in a giant pile as the lights went black. I, along with most of the audience, thought the piece had ended, but the group returned for anti-climatic slow, short solos.

Both the Jones and Varone programs ran through Sunday.


First: From Phantom, photo: Lois Greenfield.
Second:   From Bottomland, photo: Scott Suchman.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 6
February 9, 2004

© 2004 Clare Croft




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