Dance: Portrait of the artist as a black man

BILL T. JONES

THE BREATHING SHOW

SADLER'S WELLS THEATRE LONDON

WE HAVE often watched Bill T. Jones as part of a duo (with Arnie Zane) or a company (the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company), but never in Britain alone on stage. He says he named his solo programme The Breathing Show because he wanted to take a breather from his company.

At 47, he says, he needed to "reassess what it was about dance that I really love," so unsurprisingly The Breathing Show turns out to be something of a self-portrait. But the title could also be a reference to the physical act of breathing. Jones not only dances, but sings and speaks, so he needs to pace his breathing judiciously. And as if to underline the point the show's designer Bjorn Amelan briefly wanders in with balloons - air bubbles that expand until they explode.

The stage space, circumscribed by pale drapes, is Bill's garden, a place for contemplation and retreat, an inner sanctum, "a little paradise". Sometimes a fragile mobile hangs in the centre, its slender, airy aluminium shards like a stylised tree. At another time a film, Garden, by Abraham Ravett, projects images from Jones's Hudson River home, an allusive evocation of the man through his environment.

On a practical level this episode provides an intermission for Jones, as does another film, Ghostcatching, by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar. Here technological devices transform Jones's dancing figure into a ghost emptied of character, invisible save for a few delineated contours, its movements tracing curves and squiggles in the air.

Off screen, Jones is an intense individual, a tall and powerfully muscled presence, dancing to Schubert lieder, popular songs and Mozart. He imprints architectural forms with his arms, his long hands extending the straight lines and angles.

His movement seems perverse and halting, while I longed for some logical flow, some overarching pattern. Instead disconnected poses are strung together and interspersed with upper body undulations or leaps, so that a frozen crouch might be followed by shoulder rotations, then pacing about, then arm swings, then hops. Most successful is a long section in which he moves and simultaneously narrates his life history as a black American. It makes a virtue out of his dance postures, incorporating 21 body-ideograms that represent, say, "19th-century melodrama - eek! A mouse" or "Adam before and after". And it allows us to revel in his gift for speech, where words roll resonantly and rhythmic phrases shape themselves in a way his dance does not.

This vocal dexterity makes him an exception among dancers. But he also has the rare gift among performers of charisma, allowing him to transcend most of his material. The Breathing Show depends on the force of an outsize ego, and is too personal anyway to be grafted on anyone else.

The Cardiff-based Diversions perform a Bill T Jones piece, `Nowhere But Here', in a double bill at the Peacock Theatre (0171-863 8222) on 14 November

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