He’s so PRETTY: Dazzling New Work by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company Premieres at ADF


The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in the world premiere of Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist, at ADF 7/1/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


If you love dance and you were not in the Durham Performing Arts Center last night, you need to be there tonight, 7 p.m. sharp. Bill T. Jones, who has been using non-dance elements in his pieces for many years with varying success, has gotten all the elements working together in beautiful synchronicity in his new dance, Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist. The American Dance Festival-commissioned work had its world premiere at the Festival July 1. The second installment in a planned trilogy, Analogy/Lance follows last year’s Analogy/Dora, and uses some of the same devices, but to far more powerful effect.

In many of his previous pieces involving storytelling, Jones has preferred to fragment the story and arrange its parts, often intermixed with contrasting material, in dance-like constructions in which the fractured narrative elements may repeat, modulate and circle back to an initial concept. While highly intellectual, this approach tended to make the narrative confusing, or even to obscure it meaning and purpose. Because the ideas were so broken up, so was the movement, its energies bombinating among verbalizations, projections and high-design stage spaces.

But for Analogy/Lance, Jones, his associate artistic director Janet Wong, and the company dancers have kept the storytelling on a straightforward narrative arc, and the dancing has the straight-ahead drive of a bullet train. It is absolutely thrilling. The story alone would be compelling; the dancing alone would hit a high mark in the Festival season; the music (Nick Hallett) alone would take you to far places of the soul; the uncluttered set (Bjorn Amelan), unpeopled, you could watch just to see the lighting (Robert Wierzel) and projections (Janet Wong) change on its surfaces and objects. The costumes (Liz Prince) need the bodies–but in them, the bodies convey even more about character, place and time. This is the whole package, a complete work of art in which every element is necessary and all are in harmony.


Cain Coleman, Jr., left, as persona Pretty, knotted together with Talli Jackson as Lance, the man who created him. Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist premiered at the American Dance Festival July 1, 2016. Photo: Grant Halverson.


As he has often done, Jones has drawn on his own life for material. The subject of this story is Lance T. Briggs, Bill T. Jones’ nephew. The two began an oral history project together in 2014, and its questions and answers form the basis for this dance-theatre work. Sometimes we hear their recorded voices; at others, the dancers speak into microphones; at other times, a singer speaks the texts. (The many awkwardnesses of microphone usage in Analogy/Dora have been rectified.)

And what a story! As a young boy, the preternaturally talented LTB (as he is often called) trains at the San Francisco Ballet School–but soon he is on the streets, “preying” on men looking for young boys. Sex, drugs, partying…he becomes a stripper, and a male escort. Eventually, he creates a character, a persona, Pretty. Lance and Pretty are inseparable, but not quite the same. They have a helluva time, whether in performing in clubs or falling in love in prison. Love, HIV positivity, visa problems–nothing slows Lance/Pretty down until one day his legs quit working, nobody knows why. Brought to a standstill, confined in the body that had always previously allowed him to escape from any situation, Lance struggles to control and come to terms with his own alter-ego–the character he invented, and who invented him–and the struggle supplies the dramatic tension in this incident-crammed narrative. It’s a true story, but also an analogy for the human condition.


Pretty (Cain Coleman, Jr.) in his Josephine Baker-inspired show, TRIBALISTIC, within the show Analogy/Lance. This scene exhibits Bill T.’s conceptual layering at its best. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company at ADF at DPAC, 7/1/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


The rich music/sound score for this production includes a trove of recorded songs of various types by different artists; some lyrics written by Lance T. Briggs; music composed by Nick Hallett, with him playing and singing, along with baritone Matthew Gamble, as well as assorted sounds associated with the story. The whole is so remarkable that I sent in some questions, which the composer kindly answered at length. I include his responses here, as they shed light on the creative process in a complex endeavor like the Analogy trilogy.

Composer Nick Hallett:

“Work began on the score for Lance before the choreographic process, I started to think about the music as we were developing the first part of the trilogy, Dora, which premiered last year at ADF.  There are details of Lance’s world evident in in that piece, if you listen closely.  Similarly, Dora’s music peeks through the cracks of the Lance score.  Of course, the main work on the score began as recordings of the interviews came my way, filled with Lance’s stories and song lyrics.  These served as the greatest inspiration.

“It’s a very back-and-forth process with Bill [T. Jones], most of the ideas are generated in the studio alongside the choreography and dramaturgy. The “production numbers” aka Lance’s sketches of songs were fleshed out in advance of the rehearsal process, based on the interview materials.

“Matthew Gamble the baritone was singing, in addition to delivering spoken texts.  I was singing (in my upper register, mostly!), playing electric piano, and performing live electronics.  I also created nearly 300 sound cues that are called by the stage manager and executed by the sound designer, Sam Crawford.  One other important musical contributor is the company member Antonio Brown, who is a DJ.  He starts the show off with his mix of the Evelyn Champagne King song, Shame, and acts like something of a Greek chorus throughout, mixing and scratching dance music samples into my score.”

Moonglow and Fireworks: ADF’s 80th Season Closes Tonight

At the beginning, it seems so luxuriously long. But each year on the final weekend, the American Dance Festival season feels painfully short. The ADF’s 80th season–its 36th in Durham–ends tonight at the Durham Performing Arts Center with the second performance of a beautifully constructed program featuring a spectacular ending.

It won’t be quite the same as the 26th’s, when the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement was presented to Lin Hwai-min, choreographer and founder of the breathtaking Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Another appropriate adjective for Lin Hwai-min’s work is “humane.” His choreographic language is most definitely not American: it comes very close to being universal. The award, with its $50,000 check, was presented by Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who met Lin Hwai-min by chance in Bali in 1990–“and beautiful things for both of us came out of that meeting.” Lin Hwai-min gave the most graceful acceptance speech I’ve ever heard. Here are the highlights.

Lin Hwai-min, 2013 Scripps/ADF Award winner at the ceremony, 7-26-13. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Lin Hwai-min, 2013 Scripps/ADF Award winner at the ceremony, 7-26-13. Photo: Grant Halverson.

“This is an enormous encouragement, especially for a person who did not begin taking regular dance classes until he was 23,” said Lin Hwai-min, going on to note that he had been inspired by the famous John F. Kennedy quote (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). “There was no Taiwan modern dance company, so I started one.” That was in 1973, and in 1978, he came to the ADF for the first time, in its first year in Durham. “The biggest thing I learned in 1978 was that I could do anything but American modern dance!”

“Running a dance company is tough anywhere,” he said, “but an award like this, a gesture like this, will sustain me for months.” He then went on to tell a moving story about a crucial incident early in his company’s life. “I first met Miss Graham [the great Martha Graham, priestess of high modern dance and a co-founder of the ADF] when her company visited Taiwan in 1974…’What am I going to do with Martha Graham in my own studio?’ I asked myself. I did what only the bravest, youngest would do–I held a Graham Technique class!”

Miss Graham, he said, was happy, and praised Lin and the company, which was just a year old. Imagine what this must have meant to them. Lin took her to the airport, and before she departed, she told him that many had helped her when she was starting out, and pressed into his hands a pile of Taiwanese money, “for your rainy days.” And now, Lin said from the podium, he would give his award money to Cloud Gate for a special project to nurture younger dance artists. A man worthy of honor, indeed.

Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre performed a solo from Lin Hwai-min's Moon Water. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre performed a solo from Lin Hwai-min’s Moon Water. Photo: Grant Halverson.

An exquisite example of Lin Hwai-min’s work opens the dance program. Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate dances a solo from Moon Water (1998), to the Sarabande, Suite No. 1 in G Major (BWV 1007), from the Six Suites for Solo Cello, by J. S. Bach (the Mischa Maisky DG recording). It is an expression of the duality within wholeness–the dancer moves in a private meditation, untouchable, unreachable, but which we can see like we see the moon’s reflection in water. The reflection is not the moon, but it brings us closer to comprehension of the moon. The moon we see in the sky is too far, too separate; we know her by her actions as she throws her light onto water. The dance is not the dancer, but without her the dance cannot be known. The dancer is not the dance; she is as contained and apart as the celestial moon, but with her graceful motion she lures us toward the enlightenment conjoining shimmering illusion and  dark substance.

There follows a reconstruction of the “Helios” section from Martha Graham’s Acts of Light (one of ADF’s lesser-known roles is that of restorer and preserver of modern dances that have almost gotten away), danced by students from the ADF School. In their golden unitards, in golden lighting (Beverly Emmons, recreated by David Ferri), the young dancers are like sunflowers: sprouting, burgeoning, turning, flowering, dying to sprout anew. There were some roughish moments in the ensemble, and one dancer who looked like he might be falling ill, as he was distractingly out of synchronization and clearly having balance problems, but the dance itself is charming and enlivening, and one feels grateful it has not been lost in the dust of history.

From the reconstructed "Helios" section of Martha Graham's Acts of Light, performed by ADF students. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

From the reconstructed “Helios” section of Martha Graham’s Acts of Light, performed by ADF students. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

Next comes a reconstruction of a quirky Bill T. Jones dance from 1992 (how quickly dances can be lost!), Love Re-defined. It is restaged here by Leah Cox, who was a very memorable member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company last decade. She has gotten great dancing from the 10-member ensemble who zip through the strange little love-story vignettes with verve. Whether making the angular ideograms or performing the elastic partnering of Jones’ style, the dancers are right on it. The work is set to strange poetic lyrics and music by Daniel Johnston, and the dancers seemed particularly strong during the long involved song about the king–King Kong (he loved his woman).

ADF students in Bill T. Jones' Love Re-defined, in the FORCES OF DANCE program. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

ADF students in Bill T. Jones’ Love Re-defined, in the FORCES OF DANCE program. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

The finale of this intriguing season is a new work by Twyla Tharp, which had its world premiere July 26. The ADF commissioned Treefrog in Stonehenge, with its original score by David Kahne, to be set on ADF students, and it is staged here by Rika Okamoto and Alexander Brady, both former Tharp dancers. How wonderful is this? Not only does the ADF preserve old dances in new young bodies, they commission new artwork for new dancers. And  Treefrog in Stonehenge is not a minor work, but a large, increasingly complex multi-section work for 16 dancers, larded with references to and quotes from many dance styles and particular choreographers, in addition to Tharp’s own inimitable inventions. All of the very advanced students excelled at Tharp’s demanding athleticism, moving patterns and split-second timing at break-neck pace. The entire troupe was electric, sizzling with the joy of a difficult endeavor going very right, but Ben Ingel, a member of North Carolina Dance Theatre 2, was gasp-inducing in his high leaping turns. After “Helios,” it was impossible not to think of Icarus. Ingel was flying, burning like a Roman candle, but he landed as gently as a spark–no crashing to this burn. (I shook his hand afterward. It wasn’t even hot, but it did smell mightily of Tiger Balm.) What a wonderful close to the American Dance Festival’s 80th season of bringing better living through dance.

ADF students gave Twyla Tharp's Treefrog in Stonehenge its world premiere at the DPAC, 7-26-13. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

ADF students gave Twyla Tharp’s Treefrog in Stonehenge its world premiere at the DPAC, 7-26-13. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

The program repeats July 27 only, but it will be possible to see Ingel in Charlotte next season in NCDT II performances. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will appear in April, 2014, when Carolina Performing Arts will present Songs of the Wanderers in Chapel Hill.

A RITE Has Its World Premiere at Carolina Performing Arts

My review of the world premiere of the Carolina Performing Arts-commisioned A Rite, by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and the SITI Company,  was published 1/28/13 in CVNC.org.

A Rite, at its  premiere,1/26/13, CPA. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

A Rite, at its Chapel Hill, NC, premiere, 1/26/13, CPA. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

In a year so replete with good stuff, including twelve commissioned works, as Carolina Performing Arts’  2012-13 season, one could start to feel overwhelmed. And one could start to get really tired of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the focus of CPA’s series within a series examining that era-changing work from many points of view. However, that’s not happening. Instead, each new performance increases interest in that complex music, the dance that accompanied it—and the ones that have followed—and the ideas that swirl around them. On January 26, (delayed one day by icy weather) CPA presented in Memorial Hall what may be the most intellectually important of its dozen commissions this year, A Rite, a collaborative production of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and SITI Company, headed by Anne Bogart. This brawny baby was three years from conception to premiere.

"Dactors" on the Memorial Hall stage for the premiere of A RITE. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

“Dactors” on the Memorial Hall stage for the premiere of A RITE. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

Bill T. Jones has moved further and further into dance theater over the years. While he has an unerring sense of spectacle, I have never felt his command of theater idiom equaled his command of dance. Working with Anne Bogart and the highly physical SITI Company, as well as his associate artistic director Janet Wong, Jones and his company have found a much stronger theatrical voice….


The academic character modeled on UNC Professor Severine Neff rides the piano in A RITE. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

The academic character modeled on UNC Professor Severine Neff rides the piano in A RITE. Photo: Paul B. Goode.


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