DANCE / Tender slices of love and death

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
YOU GET over the loss when someone you love dies, but you never get over the person. So it is with the American dancer and choreographer Bill T Jones. Grief has been an important part of his work since the Aids-related death in 1988 of Arnie Zane, his long-standing lover and dance collaborator. But the grieving pieces are not all sad. One of them, D-Man in the Waters, for a company member who died, is exuberant and optimistic, so that the alternating programme at Sadler's Wells last week was as varied as it was visually striking, truthful and engrossing.

It is no surprise that Jones has the courage to publicise his grief: his work springs from the fabric of his life as a black American product of the Sixties. He says what he thinks and feels about racism, homophobia, identity, death and sexuality. His confessions can unsettle those afraid of difficult feelings - or they can forge a strong bond with the audience, as they did in London.

Zane and Jones, who met at college in 1971, were an unlikely pair. Jones is tall, black and graceful; Zane was short, white and springy. After Zane died, Jones decided to continue Zane's work and retained the name of their company, Bill T Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company, as a living memorial. These days Jones is dancing less and choreographing more. He invites contributions from his troupe of fine dancers, who come in all shapes and sizes, including a fat man. Because of his partnership with Zane, Jones is sensitive to the visual and movement potential of contrasting shapes.

One of the first pieces Jones created after Zane's death is Absence, set to Berlioz. A dancer wraps a hospital sheet around his head like a turban and leaves the stage. Jones appears in a white bridal skirt and sits cross-legged - isolated in the spotlight of his life. He is the chief mourner who must comfort the bereft mother and other mourners, who symbolically rip their shirts, as is the custom at Jewish funerals. Zane was Jewish. The dancers move imperceptibly to the back, leaving behind a naked man, who curls up on the floor. Jones must choose to lie down and die with the naked man or go with the others shuffling towards the white light. The curtain comes down as Jones reaches for the light. The piece is incredibly moving. Its strength lies in its delicate balance between the fluid movement and the message, which, less astutely handled, could have been an overwhelming wail. It is powerful because it is authentic, like all Jones's work, drawn as it is from his life.

In contrast, D-Man in the Waters bubbles with vitality. In this timeless classic, Jones pursues water as a metaphor, excavating the dappled seabed for dazzling images of skittering crabs, serene sea-horses and migrating schools of fish, diving and cavorting to Mendelssohn (played live). The piece is turbo-charged, building to a great climax when a dancer is thrown into the air by a yelling group. The curtain comes down as the dancer is in mid-air.

Jones uses an intriguing flanking device in D-Man: he creates an imaginary off-stage life as dancers bound in, stop short and retreat startled into the wings as though to a quieter part of the sea. This device

recurs in Soon, a tender duet for Arthur Aviles and Eric Geiger, who combine strength and vulnerability in their lifts and tumbles. They disappear and reappear to resume their erotic play and confidential exchanges. The off-stage life says the relationship is only part of their identity, not all of it. And we are voyeurs. The piece is passionate, a slice of Jones's partnership, and another example of personal statements that have universal resonances.

He is so sure of his messages that he can jumble and splice images and still make them accessible. Achilles Loved Patroclus, a short piece by the sensuous Aviles, is inspired by the go-go boys of post-Aids New York clubs. It subverts the idea that only women can be perceived as sex objects. The spin is that the man is gay, and therefore as politically powerless as women. These sequences, set to Michael Jackson's 'Bad', are intercut with incantations from classical literature portraying men as warriors, and therefore powerful. Another History of Collage develops the mix of sounds and images of dreams and is a furious protest by men in Fifties frocks against homophobia, drawing on the assassination of the San Francisco city councillor Harvey Milk in 1978.

Typically, Jones performs a solo with dialogue, and in Last Night on Earth, he usually talks about meeting Zane. He cut out this section last week, perhaps because London evokes poignant memories of the couple's visits in 1981 and 1987. But he retains the speech where he describes his memory as his enemy. He sings and mimes an unserious gestural dance to 'Let the Good Times Roll' with characteristic grace. The good times are rolled together with the bad in this season of bold, arresting, original and riveting dance that will return next year.