The L Reviews: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s A Quarreling Pair

by |
10/02/2008 9:30 AM |

The L‘s Patricia Milder dares you to bust out a tour jeté on your way to the watercooler.

Multi-media performances often end up tangled in a distracting mess, but that’s not so with A Quarreling Pair. Telling a story with dance, poetry, film, audio voice tracks, live music and singing, Bill T. Jones is able to seamlessly integrate different means of expression. Each element is intuitively exploited to its highest potential. Janet Wong’s video screens show only what is not on stage but what needs to be: a pre-recorded backstage beating plays simultaneously with a sad, flamboyant rendition of a drag show in Mexico, adding layers to the already piercing performance. This number (though Jones wouldn’t use that word) is placed near the end of the hour and a half performance; the story begins at the vaudeville style Variety Theater in Brooklyn, "the entertainment capital of the world." A clap track and voice-overs of audience commentary — snores, heckling, "preach on" style feedback for a soul singer — reminds us, the BAM audience, that we are an impenetrable, additional layer of experience removed from the action of this show within a show. And then it gets complicated.

A Quarreling Pair‘s variety show is interwoven with Jones’ reimagining of the story of two sisters living in isolation — the piece is based on a 1945 puppet play by Jane Bowles, and focuses on the "adventures" of the sister who leaves home to discover the world. Dancers Leah Cox and Paul Matteson play the two sisters, whom we view as shadow puppets behind a screen. Their images bring to mind Kara Walker’s paper cut-outs, and through their exaggerated, removed voices, they evoke the paper dolls she brings to life on video. Like Walker, Jones has never shied away from addressing issues of race or sexuality directly, and while it isn’t billed as the overarching theme of this piece, a not-so-subtle critique of America’s treatment of both remains present throughout. The two dancers in the frenetic Two Fearsome Gentleman (so reads the title in the mock Variety Theatre program) wear loose, faded neon pants and matching caps with long dog-ears. One black and one white, the men’s performance begins as a vaguely homoerotic embrace and then devolves into a dog/master relationship. The segment ends with dancer Antonio Brown repeating the same break dancing sequence over and over to faster and faster music, with Paul Matteson watching and imitating a few moves from behind.

Because Jones uses so many elements of performance, his audience is brought into the action through words one moment and images the next. Something about the combinations he chooses makes Jones one of the most difficult choreographers to watch –- difficult in the sense that he keeps pointing a well-articulated finger back to you, the individual. There isn’t really room to get outside the action when you are bombarded with layers of contradictory emotion by the minute: Still smiling about a previous coupling, I noticed the man next to me weeping. He was responding to the dancers in white that were gracefully evoking feelings associated with death or loss and remembrance. After all these years, this scene, though unspecific, still brings to mind Arnie Zane and the AIDS crisis at its tragic height.

The graceful pairing of Shayla-Vie Jenkins and LaMichael Leonard stands out as a moment of particular beauty. Amid all the craziness of the changing scenes, loudness, comedy and color, the few seconds these two dancers simply walk side-by-side is, to me, clearly the crucial moment. Jones has been thinking about the Bowles’ puppet play that inspired A Quarreling Pair for 20 years, and he was able to successfully develop a multifaceted, many tiered and undeniably rich way of articulating his long-accumulated meditations on partnering. Thankfully, dance is never lost to gimmicks as it so easily could be
and almost surely should be. The strength of the choreography is the
driving force, and it is through movement and pairings that Jones gets
the most personal. Here, he is a wide open and a stunning presence: an artist
at the top of his field.