DANCE / Mourning becomes him movement: Judith Mackrell on Bill T Jones and the Arnie Zane Dance Company at Sadler's Wells

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The Independent Culture
The first thing to note about Bill T Jones's choreography is that he's an astonishingly clever sculptor of human bodies. His company, like a prize collection of 'found' objects, comes in a vivid assortment of physical types. He can place a huge chubby man against a tiny slip of a woman, a long lean female against a short chunky male, and from them play with a whole spectrum of weight, line and colour.

He also moulds his dancers into strangely arresting shapes. Torsos keel off-centre, legs buttress at weird angles, arms brace and ripple while the lighting works overtime. Jones is less good, though, at finding a logic and a flow between movements - it's not often that you feel one step is an inevitable or even very interesting consequence of another. As a result you watch the dancing on a see-saw of emotions followed by suspicion of yourself and the choreography for not being able to sustain the highs.

The flat bits are a problem because the work's other remarkable quality is its passion. As a black, gay man, whose long-time partner Arnie Zane died from Aids, Jones has a lot to get passionate about. And his grief and anger feed so forcefully into the work that you feel let down when the choreography doesn't measure up to them. In Absence, for instance, made soon after Zane's death, there are some passages of terrible poignancy. Jones travels through the other dancers as a lone mourner gesturing his own silent language of pain. At one point he tries to caress another man who turns out to be a memory or a dream, and who simply crumples away at his touch. At the end, this figure remains lying on the stage while, painfully slowly, the rest of the dancers join hands and walk away. It is powerful stuff, but passages between these eloquent gestures feel empty of content and direction. There are too many twiddling duets and sketchy formations that tell us little about the people dancing them and even less about the music (unnamed Berlioz) to which they are performed.

In Last Night on Earth Jones speaks and dances a solo whose artlessness looks more deliberate. Its poses are abrupt, some of its sexual mime is crude, and its spoken delivery is extemporary . . . 'This is where I talk about racism and being an angry faggot.' The viewer can choose between celebrating Jones's openness, noting that his formidable charisma allows him to get away with anything he wants, or minding that some of the work's devices are obvious and the material is not, in itself, very remarkable.

Similarly, with the solo Achilles Loved Patroclus it's impossible to ignore the fact that both structure and content go to pieces halfway through. Yet a dance which graphically shows Patroclus as a very sexy, angry and mourning piece of rough, accompanied by text which evokes the more measured Homeric portrayal of Achilles, is funny, brash and right. And Jones is very good on love. One of his most consistent works is Soon, which is a wonderfully hopeful and straightforward account of eroticism, sentimentality, tenderness and aggression.

Perhaps his best work is D-Man in the Waters, where Jones spins flurries of stunning shapes and quirky movements with no slack between. Wide-open bodies jumping and diving; dancers stalking across the stage like delicate wading birds, or simply drifting round on a current - all of which show Jones as a skilled craftsman. Towards the end he, characteristically, abandons detail for gut emotion and sends the dancers running and yelling up the slopes of the climactic finale of Mendelssohn's (unnamed) string sextet - the surge of physical and emotional relief raining off the stage like a tidal wave.

To Sat, Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (071-278 8916)

(Photograph omitted)

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