Review: A Message-Heavy Bill T. Jones Dance-Theater Collage

Review: A Message-Heavy Bill T. Jones Dance-Theater Collage


Photo

Vinson Fraley Jr., center, and other members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in “A Letter to My Nephew.”

Credit
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

“Letter to My Nephew” is what James Baldwin called the first part of his enduringly urgent essay “The Fire Next Time.” A newish work by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company carries the similar title “A Letter to My Nephew.” In a program note for the piece, which had its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Tuesday, Mr. Jones calls it “a kind of postcard from uncle to nephew,” and that description seems more accurate. Despite its aspiration to topical relevance and the trendy allusion to Baldwin, this collage of dance theater is as thin as most postcards, and as banal.

It’s also cryptic. Who is this nephew of the famous Mr. Jones? The program note gives his first name, Lance. But you have to have done research or maybe have seen Mr. Jones’s 2016 work “Analogy/Lance” to know that Lance Briggs started out as a scholarship student with the San Francisco Ballet School and found success as a model and songwriter before getting caught up in drugs and prostitution, contracting AIDS and becoming paraplegic.

“A Letter” obliquely suggests some of that dramatic life with simulated street fights, a hospital bed and a fashion catwalk amid artfully arranged fragments of dance. But rather than fleshing out a portrait, “A Letter” comments on the present moment and on each place it is performed. In this Brooklyn showing, the one-line fragments of projected text include the sociological observation that “this neighborhood has changed.”

None of the commentary is any more illuminating, but it is up-to-date. Video by Janet Wong shows us torch-bearing white supremacists in Charlottesville. We see the freshly controversial anti-black verse of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The projected text ticks off the names of places in the headlines: Puerto Rico, Barcelona, Las Vegas. Somewhere in the middle of these gratuitous reminders, the voice of Mr. Jones offers the avuncular admonition to “make a statement.” It seems not to matter whether the statement is worth making.

This trivial news ticker obscures a deeper theme in Nick Hallett’s score, which samples from such empowering vogue-ball anthems as Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read.” At one point, the singer Matthew Gamble slowly intones the self-love lyrics to “The Greatest Love of All” (“no matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity”). Removing the familiar melody excises the kitsch, but the message remains simple and sentimental, if still probably necessary.

As usual, Mr. Jones’s current crew of dancers is diverse, attractive, strong and supple. They shine in brief solos, same-sex duets of fraught tenderness and multiple struts down the catwalk, sharing the credit for choreography with Mr. Jones and Ms. Wong. “Letter” is less text-heavy than Mr. Jones’s recent “Analogy” series, and yet the dancing still seems hemmed in by the stagecraft.

The work ends on a heartening note, with a video of Mr. Briggs, alive and rapping. Although we may not know who he is, we can sense his spirit. “Keep fighting,” Mr. Jones writes in his letter, and it’s a kind of encouragement that everyone can applaud and absorb. But there are more effective and direct means of delivering that message, and they don’t require an audience.



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