Saturday, 12 November 2011

Bill T Jones is a Good Man

Seeing Rambert Dance Company and a documentary about Bill T Jones in one night is a tough call. The slight dissatisfaction I felt after Rambert became a raging resentment once I’d watched A Good Man. There’s nothing wrong with Rambert, apart from the strange dishonesty that has a company made up mostly of ballet dancers still avoid the word in their name. The triple bill is a little weak – the final piece seems to have an oddly outdated notion of childhood, despite the company having an in-house scientist to help with child psychology – but they get their legs and the acrobatics tight. But in the light of Bill T Jones, caught in the process of choreographing a commission about Abraham Lincoln, they come across as the polite and slightly boring kid at the big wild party.

Jones is an anachronism: he is in that very American mode of the artist who wants to make a big statement. At one point he stands in the middle of his dancers, stripped to the waist, apologising for his earlier anger in the same way that a Glaswegian hard-man argues over the latest increase in the bus fare. He’s a determined modernist, a romantic, striving like Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, all those tough guys who dare audiences to call them sissies for being sensitive.

So, he is even a stereotype. Luckily, he addresses this: admitting that he has faith in art, faith in the great man, he surprises himself. He knows that he is arrogant – he moans at one point that he doesn’t want to be a saint – but his physical excellence lends him a charisma that his temper doesn’t deserve. And he is certainly all man, all power. The end of the film sees him going mad for the biggest sound he can get out of the musician, before being told that he would need to warn an audience about the volume in case someone has a heart-attack.
But by God, he’s exciting. Apart from one scene, when the company perform some ritual before going on stage, there’s no sentimentality, no special pleading. Listening to Jones find the hidden racism in the Great Emancipator’s speeches is thrillingly taboo: his arguments with the musicians and dancers reveal the passion that binds them in this difficult relationship. Best of all, the look of fear on his audience’s faces. I may be unkind, but that will teach them to think a night at the dance is the emotional equivalent of a champagne picnic.
The more I think about that documentary, the deeper it gets. It reminds that dance is the most appropriate art for philosophical discussion: what other performance could explore Lincoln without turning it all history detail or windy rhetoric? Where else can the personal and the political mesh so elegantly, as when Jones uses the lives of his dancers to reflect on the USA’s horrible domestic history? And there, at the centre, Jones himself. Battling age, inspiration, expectation. He mocks those who commissioned him for tokenism, then moans that audiences are lazy. He is picture book perfect.

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