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Bill T. Jones grapples with the Civil War 

History's rough draft

Another Evening: Serenade/ The Proposition
Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company
American Dance Festival, July 10-12

Particularly after the March performance of his disappointing 2006 work, Chapel/ Chapter, (see "Dance of death," March 26), it's good to be able to report that choreographer Bill T. Jones seems back on track again.

His newest work, Another Evening: Serenade/ The Proposition, may well constitute, like previous works in the Another Evening series, something of a prefatory look at his deliberative process for an upcoming full-evening project—in this case, a piece dealing with issues in American history and culture touching on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, with the working title A Good Man!/ A Good Man? It may be a preliminary sketch, but Serenade/ The Proposition has more going for it than most.

True, the work we saw on Thursday had already reached a difficult point in its evolution. Burgeoning with sections, at an hour and 10 minutes it was already too long to be performed, as it was, without an intermission. Editorial indecision seems to be contributing to the length: At this point, Jones seems to be erring on the side of inclusiveness in several elements of the work. Lengthy lists of cities—possibly Civil War sites, possibly not, since they're read, in stentorian tones, without context or explanation—are repeated, adding little value to an already top-heavy spoken-word text. Elsewhere, Jones' actors repeat certain phrases and sections of stories, tweaking a word here and there. These contrasts, which interest us at first, ultimately take on the tentative feel of an artist who simply hasn't made up his mind.

Similarly, at places we sense that Jones is still including repeated iterations of certain movement sequences and gestures, with variable changes in personnel or outcome. The versions plateau more often than they build or reinforce; too many seem to be here because the most effective ones haven't yet been chosen. Taken together, these elements rob Another Evening: Serenade/ The Proposition of the crispness and pith we enjoy earlier in the work.

But where Chapel/ Chapter was plagued by vagueness, a fundamental disconnect between text and movement and a disturbing absence of empathy and imagination, the new work searches deeply for connections—among the writings and speeches of Lincoln, between Jones' company members (whose recorded voices are heard in certain sections) and the communities in which they live.

As it was in Chapel/ Chapter, Jones' choreography is credited as having been created with digital video artist Janet Wong and company members. But the gestures, flow, abundant energy and lyricism here look a lot more familiar than the movement we saw in March. A seemingly endless series of tableaus are punctuated by historical whirlwinds; the maelstrom leaves no one alone for long. The daguerreotype-like family-portrait poses give way to collisions and skirmishes in which characters are blown together, cling and then just as suddenly pulled up, out and apart.

Among these sections, the most moving at this point belongs to a group of women whose dignified, initial pose is spun, tossed and flung into a web-work of conflicts and cooperation. A later, metaphorical sequence has a woman standing between two fighting men, while a speaker says it's hard to ride two horses at once—and much harder when they are going in opposite directions. Historically, a number of forces have threatened to thwart the attempts to unify so many peoples into one country, and Jones' new work is most effective when it indicates the degree to which those forces are still at work.

It's disquieting when all of history is invoked to build up to a single autobiographical experience, as Serenade/ The Proposition does—placing Jones' entering into Richmond, Va. (on a trip with his family as a child) on the same plane as Lincoln's entry into that city after the war. But we sense Jones is still at the end searching for the proper context of his own history. The work is continuing. It should.

Check out our ADF blog at www.indyweekblogs.com/adf.

  • It may be a preliminary sketch, but Serenade/ The Proposition has more going for it than most.

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