DEATH CASTS a long shadow, even in the life-affirming realm of dance. Flick through the current credits for the Bill T Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company, and you'll find a half-page biog of a man who died 10 years ago. Zane was Jones's partner as much in life as in art, and Jones is determined the world won't forget it.

Not that anyone who saw the pair's duets in the early Eighties is ever likely to. The startling conjunction of white, wiry, five-foot-four Zane and black, statuesque, six-foot-two Jones made the kind of statement that didn't need programme notes. And when Zane died of Aids and Jones declared himself HIV-positive, their New York-based dance company continued to challenge perceived notions of performance. It tackled race, sexuality, mortality - subjects way outside the regular scope of dance. Notoriously in 1994, a Jones piece called Still/Here breached the ultimate taboo by using video images and spoken testimony of people suffering terminal illness. The show ignited fierce debate about how far dance could go. "Victim art,"some critics called it, complaining that the painful actuality of the material made it impossible for either audiences or critics to express an opinion on the work itself.

There will be no such qualms over Jones's latest piece, which had its European premiere at the Peacock on Tuesday. We Set Out Early ... Visibility Was Poor is about "the notion of a continuum of events as history ... how the artist and the community as a whole can understand their boundless existence". Whatever that means, it's a far cry from the strident polemic of old. Has the rebel gone soft in middle age? Has he given up the fight? He has certainly mellowed. This is his most dancerly full-scale production to date, and as such its "issues" are softened by its elegance. But the issues are there all right.

For a start, Jones's company of 10 contains challenging contrasts of racial and body types. There's a mixed-race woman with pink hair, an Annie Lennox wearing outsized man's trousers, a giantesque black man (who goes some way to make up for the absence of Bill T himself on stage), and even a fatty in tights who's the double of Dawn French. And what these bodies do is pretty free-ranging too. Aerobic workouts are punctuated by neat balletic spins; jazz wriggles and flicks melt into earthy Martha Graham; the performers emit yelps and bird whistles, or start up clapping games and chants like a high school basket team. In Jones's book anything goes. Yet it's done with such polish and precision that if he had the dancers stand rubbing their tummies and patting their heads it would still look marvellous.

The structure of the piece derives from the chronology of the music: Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale of 1917, some somnolent John Cage from the Fifties, and an emotionally high-flown symphony by the contemporary Baltic composer Peteris Vasks. Jones's canvas is the whole of the 20th century, no less. And though there's no story as such, it is not hard to see in the progression of the three scenes a spiritual history of the American people. The Stravinsky sees a community busy organising itself. The stage is bisected by a diagonal runway - the road that must be travelled - and suspended on the back wall is an industrial-looking metal structure - the work that must be done. The John Cage heralds intimations of mortality as the stage is plunged into darkness and the "community" reassemble the chrome machine as a funerary cart, which later rises into the air to hover above their heads.

The last section, which is the most effective and affecting, opens with the dancers gazing into a pale expanse of blue, as if contemplating the new millennium. As the emotional temperature of Vasks's music rises to fever pitch, the crowd begin to gabble silent words and race in frantic circles. A girl hurtles into her lover's welcoming arms only to be repeatedly sucked back into the wings, reclaimed by the oblivion of the past. Finally, the masses launch into a hedonistic disco jive while one man stands apart, apparently wracked by a search for meaning. Is the lone man Jones himself? Is he the one gazing over the brink of the abyss? Perhaps it's wrong to see this work as a change of direction for Bill T Jones. It's as personal, and frank, and ambitious, as anything he's done.