Edinburgh Festival BILL T JONES / ARNIE ZANE DANCE COMPANY Playhouse Theatre

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Seldom does the work of a choreographer of such mediocre talent as Bill T Jones generate as much attention as Jones's Still/ Here has done since its premiere last September. And how disappointing that the Edinburgh Festival, a model of superb dance programming over the past few years, should jump on the bandwagon by inviting the insignificant Bill T Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company to perform Still/ Here at the Playhouse Theatre.

The now well-documented furore surrounding Still/ Here dates back to an article entitled "Discussing the Undiscussible" by the New Yorker's dance critic, Arlene Croce, in which she asserts that, "by working dying people into his act, Jones [puts] himself beyond the reach of criticism" and that he is "the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves not as artists but as victims and martyrs". Croce's article provoked the most heated cultural debate since that which surrounded the obscenity charge levelled against Robert Mapplethorpe's photography. But all this has hardly backfired on Jones - a man who's not so much a martyr as a manipulator. Black, gay and HIV-positive, Jones lost his dance partner and lover, Arnie Zane, to Aids in 1988. Since then, he has insidiously used his own status and its minority/ victim associations to convince us that he's just a good guy being crucified by people whose moral and spiritual shortcomings render them incapable of facing up to (let alone accepting or appreciating) his work. And Jones is handsome, articulate and suave enough to fool you.

The truth, however, is that Still/ Here is all controversy and no choreography: like most of Jones's work it trivialises rather than matches an important issue to dance. I don't object to a dance production based on the lives of people facing terminal illness, but Jones simply hasn't the choreographic skill or depth needed to serve such themes. Still/ Here also highlights the limited abilities of Jones's dancers, so we see each individual repeating his or her tediously habitual movements; one woman keeps showing us a high leg extension (always the same leg) which folds into a kneebend; another demonstrates an unremarkable grasp of Capoeira lunges and spins. None of which serves or elevates the subject matter of Still/ Here, and it's a miracle that, under Jones's crass and banal handling, the people who attended his "Survival Workshops" (from which the work culls most of its material) manage to retain their dignity. We see their faces (on video) and hear their stories (on tape) as edited, spoken extracts and as sung lyrics. And their contribution, although turned into Oprah Winfrey- style revelation-cum-confession, is a whole lot more interesting than the skittering and posing of Jones's dancers.

Is Still/ Here a hospital visit instead of a work of art? asked Time magazine. To Jones, "it's art because the artist says it's art," which, in turn, raises the question of whether Jones is an artist or a smooth- talking charlatan. Still/ Here amounts to a cheap stunt in which Jones attempts to tug at our heart-strings, but proves that he is incapable of any real compassion or respect for the dying. It's his biggest con- trick to date and, at the end of the work, when a TV monitor bearing his image is wheeled around the stage, it's obvious that, as always, he can't resist making himself the star of the show.