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Stretching the Medium 

A month of Bill T. Jones, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Joe Goode

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
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Spring arrives, and with it several notable dance companies from out of town -- Bill T. Jones, Martha Graham, Joe Goode and Merce Cunningham -- who are performing over the next three weeks at area venues, beginning tonight. The Martha Graham Dance Company presents a very fine view of modern dance in all its passionate expressivity. But despite the historical importance and durability of Graham‘s choreography, it is nonetheless a window into the past; while the new work by Jones, Goode and Cunningham is thoroughly rooted in the present. These are choreographers who share a penchant for stretching the medium and our assumptions about its links to the corporeal, by creating virtual dance installations, as in the work of Jones and Cunningham, or including narrative, song and theatrical elements, as in the work of Joe Goode.

Bill T. Jones’ artistic integrity extends to his politics, and he made the dailies in February by announcing that he will not perform at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, this spring unless the Confederate flag is removed from the state Capitol building. Living as an engaged citizen of the world, Jones has a fierce if poetic intelligence. He is less interested in answering the big questions than arriving at interesting metaphors for the paradoxes that are inherent in the asking, and his large-scale company pieces of late are reaching a breadth and density that is inching toward grandeur, albeit with a distinctly contemporary, even experimental, sensibility.

Comprising four movements, Jones‘ ambitious You Walk? features video projections by digital artist Paul Kaiser and costumes by the Italian couturier Laperla. Jones, who was adding finishing touches to the piece right up until its world premiere in Iowa City less than a month ago, took a moment to talk by telephone. Acknowledging that the company’s rehearsal process over the past two and a half months has been arduous, Jones discussed highlights of the piece, including the moments of spontaneity he‘s built into it -- points at which the dancers are required to make decisions, as Jones put it, ”at breakneck speed and afresh each night.“ Jones explained that these improvisational strategies are, in part, to keep his dancers challenged as they embark on a yearlong tour. As implied by the title, a sense of journey and elusive destination is a recurrent theme in Jones’ work of the last few years, and Los Angeles audiences are lucky to be at the beginning of this one.

Equally gratifying is the chance to savor Jones, sans company, in The Breathing Show, his first solo evening. This flexible performance vehicle allows the choreographer to combine new and classic work with spontaneity, conversation and a little shtick, with live music provided by a perambulatory musician (Daniel Roumain), and Abraham Ravett‘s short film, Bill’s Garden. Jones is a riveting and generous performer, who moves like nobody‘s business -- motion ripples unfettered through his epic proportions, with an ease that belies his athleticism. Of special note is the projection of Ghostcatching: A Virtual Dance Installation, a fitting counterpoint to Jones’ central meditation on his body. Created in collaboration with digital artists Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, of Riverbed Productions, Ghostcatching explores the pure movement and spectral traces that extend beyond Jones‘ physical body and personality.

Kaiser and Eshkar, who have been called ”digital impressionists,“ use state-of-the-art motion-capture technology to record and re-create movement as ”hand-drawn“ animated figures. They are thoughtful draftsmen, whose collaborations with movement artists are less demonstrations of sophisticated technology than they are philosophical inquiries into the nature of virtuality and corporeality. After an initial collaboration with Merce Cunningham on the virtual dance installation entitled Hand-drawn Spaces, which premiered at the 1998 SIGGRAPH festival, the Riverbed duo expanded their parameters by creating an environmental decor for Cunningham’s latest large-scale work, Biped, at the Alex Theater at the end of the month.

Over his prodigious 60-year career, Cunningham has developed unique collaborations with a long list of artists (Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol among them) and musicians, most notably his longtime partner, the late John Cage. The collaboration with the Riverbed duo is a natural fit, given that both digital artists and choreographers are interested in the elasticity of perspective and space. Cunningham is known for subverting the foreground and background of the stage space in favor of a more complex and democratic visual field. In Biped, his dancers interact within a visual space enveloped by virtual 3-D ”dancers“ performing choreographic sequences that, in true Cunningham fashion, are ordered by chance operations -- in other words, via a toss of the dice. In this manner, Cunningham eliminates character, dramatic through-line, intention and psychology in favor of pure movement. According to Kaiser, a serendipitous moment occurred when the projections were united with the live dancers and music for the first time at Biped‘s premiere in Berkeley last year. In an essay about the collaboration, he writes, ”By a miracle of chance operations, one of the first dancers on stage (Jeannie Steele) was haloed in a projection of her own motion-capture -- ’as if I were dancing inside myself,‘ she said afterwards.“

Cunningham’s presence at the Alex concludes a season of strong dance programming at the Glendale venue, following performances by too-seldom-seen artists such as Susan Marshall and Meredith Monk. In a 1998 press statement, executive director Martin Kagan stated his intention to make the Alex the premier Los Angeles venue for contemporary dance -- a bid that is gathering steam and audiences. Cunningham‘s cool formalism may be a stretch beyond the entertaining populism of troupes the Alex has made a commitment to presenting, such as the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Momix and Pilobolus, but Biped’s cutting-edge animation technology is appropriate fare for the GlendaleBurbank area, the animation capital of the world.

In the week between Jones‘ and Cunningham’s appearances, the Joe Goode Performance Group (JGPG) presents the Bessie Award--winning Deeply There (stories of a neighborhood) at UCLA‘s Freud Theater. Like Jones, Goode is a humanist. Both choreographers share a fondness for lush, full-bodied and high-velocity movement, and both engage in an organic working process with their companies. Goode encourages his dancers to improvise with words, sound, gesture, humor -- by any means necessary in order to express a felt state as honestly as possible. The results form a unique amalgam that, more than anything referenced by the appellation ”dance theater,“ integrates singing with dancing and text; and the evening-length Deeply There includes a series of ”song-dances“ created in collaboration with Seattle composer and lyricist Robin Holcomb.

At heart Goode has always been a storyteller, but whereas in the past he has told multiple stories within one piece, with Deeply There he has constructed a single tight narrative concerned with the unlikely and ad hoc ”families“ that form in times of trouble or grief. Deeply There is at once specific and grand in scope: The titular neighborhood is San Francisco’s Castro District, the gay mecca for the past 20 years, and the unions are instigated by the recent passing of a lover (represented by a bodiless, rumple-sheeted bed). Goode says that the piece is a meditation on the dying process and our culture‘s inability to accept death, yet the specter of the AIDS crisis looms over the proceedings.

Although Southern California tour stops sometimes include Santa Barbara, Orange County and San Diego, it is surprising how little we see of Goode and his San Francisco--based JGPG in Los Angeles. Let us hope that a month like this isn’t a fluke, but rather bodes well for the rest of the year, exemplifying as it does the public‘s interest not only in dance, but in choreographic work that embodies our technological and cultural Zeitgeist.

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