Sunday, October 5, 2008

Review(ish): Bill T. Jones's "A Quarreling Pair" and the Circus of Quirk

When Lillie first told me she had an extra ticket for Bill T. Jones's "A Quarreling Pair" at BAM, i couldn't have been more excited. While i've considered myself a fan of his work for a long time, the only time i had seen him live was performing an excerpt of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" at Fall for Dance a few years ago. Aside from that, the youtube previews of his work, and the respective documentaries on "Still/Here" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin", I had no experience watching his work. While I've always held him in my mind as the type of choreographer that might be able to make the most of a hypermedia system, this was my first time seeing a full show. I was looking forward to this as a real treat - quite like i looked forward to Susan Marshall's show - with the nervously giddy expectation that i would enjoy what i was about to see rather than a question of what this new work was or how the creator was reinvisioning dance, as I do when i'm about to see someone i've never seen before.

So perhaps that built up anticipation was what led to my quite opposite experience. Maybe it was that i'm not familiar with the puppet play that it was based on. Or maybe i just was in the mood for more dancing, after taking former BTJAZ dancer Alex Beller's class that morning. The audience seemed to like it, jumping to their feet to give a standing ovation as Jones came out for the bow, but Lillie and i just sat there, shaking our heads, as the forest of standing applauders obscured our view of the stage.

Why was it so bad in my mind? You'll notice that i don't say i "hated it" - if i hated it it would imply (to me at least) that there was something that i had a gut-wrenching averse reaction to, something that made me angry or upset or uncomfortable. And i think that's why it was so bad for me - i didn't hate it, it was just boring, and (i feel) poorly done.

To start, the first third of the evening length piece seemed to be a criticism of itself, repeatedly pointing out how boring the piece was. At certain moments (for instance, a prolonged and repetitive shadow-puppet exchange between the two sisters) localized sounds would broadcast over different sections of the speakers of people talking, making it sound like it was coming from the audience. Some of the comments included "this is boring" or, in other sections, jeering for the performer to get off of the stage. While this, the first time it happened, was a little interesting, if only for the "trick" of it, it quickly got old. At first I thought Jones using these "crowd interactions" to create the atmosphere of a carnival/cabaret (to mimic the piece), and to create the performer-audience dynamic that is more common with black art - a vocalness of part of the audience in both praise and critique of the work. Okay. Point taken. But why was Jones pointing out that the piece was boring? If he was aware of it, why didn't he change it? It seemed to me, then, that he had to be directing out attention to the fact that we as an audience might find it boring, but that he as a choreographer wanted us to pay attention longer. However, the piece gave me no answer as to why.

The first "dancing" didn't happen for at least seven or eight minutes, and after that point continued to appear with such sparsity that it seemed more of an interlude to the theatrics and songs that were being performed around it. At first, i thought this was intentional to push the audience towards a feeling of "more dnace! give us more dancing! all we want is more dancing!", but that moment of "more dancing" never came. The piece's two "big dancey" sections contained more walking in slow triplet rhythms than any virtuosic or innovative movement and, in contrast to the Lar Lubovitch performance I saw at DTW on Friday which also made extensive use of slow walking triplet patterns, Jones's use of them literally did nothing but make me sleepy. Yes, yes, and yes, the dancers themselves were GORGEOUS, and it was clear that they had serious skill, presence, and moving power. But we never (aside from one movement - an incredible jumping back flip that rolled to the ground) got to see them really move. There was too much stuff in the way, and if you know me or the work i've been involved in for the past year or so - a champion of "more" and an anti-clarity crusader, you know that's saying something.

Maybe it wasn't the volume, as much as the content. Many of the sections were solely singing or theatrical gags, and, for me, nearly all of the gags fell very flat. Maybe it was seeing Susan Marshall's show in such proximity - both shows dealt with notions of illusion, gag, entertainment, performance, campy sexuality, etc, and both shows adopted a vaudevillian style. But where Marshall's show used the comedic elements of vaudeville choreographically, melding them with her gorgeous movement, Jone's seemed to lack both inventiveness and an ability to meld his gags with the piece as a larger whole. It even seemed that Jones was trying to adopt the trend of blatant quirk in downtown dance, and somehow ready it for an uptown audience by squeezing it into the guise of vaudeville. The most successful section by far for me was the male duet shown on the show's card - the pair of men in a mock baseball getup. It was gestural, quirky, hipsterish, and felt like it had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the show.

To top it all of, the show was very formally narrative, but was unclear and hard to follow. And yet the audience seemed to love it. Which leaves me wondering, a) what was i missing? b) did the audience like it just because it's been deemed "good dance" c) is it possible for a choreographer to retain the fierceness that they had before they were deemed "good dance" after they've been accepted by the "mainstream" and, most shockingly to me, d) is it possible that i've really disliked Bill T. Jone's work all along, and thought that i've loved him because of the outlier few pieces that i've actually seen?

Looks like i have some homework...

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the video projection was both uninventive and low-qual.
i am not threatened by bad work, i am not threatened by bad work, i am not threatened by bad work...


larissa said...

I saw a Quarreling Pair too, but did not have near the same reaction to it. It took me quite a while to be engaged in it because the dance took a while to get past kitsch into real movement and expression. But I didn't find it boring, and I enjoyed myself. The text was very rich and while the dance lagged to meet it, when they did coincide on the same level it was beautiful. I'm still left with the fuzzy feeling of not knowing exactly what the story was trying to convey. But I did get a strong sense that the two extreme personas of the sisters represented two extremes of viewing and interacting in the world. One, Harriet, being the recluse that disengages from themselves and everyone else because it's easier to not care at all, and one, Rhoda, who believes they can really change the world just by being part of it and experiencing it. In the mix is all this kitsch and performance that responds to a superficial way of navigating life and the idea that "what's inside of people isn't really all that interesting". I think there was a bit too much of this though, and by the time we got to see the real relationships between people, and the inside dream world of Harriet, both parts which I thought were beautiful movement, (into the end with that gorgeous repeated partnering with the whole cast), it was a too little too late in comparison to the kitschy majority.

Although I agree and loved how Susan Marshall played with the same types of vaudevillian ideas in a much more fluid, clear, and engaging way, this was not bad work. It didn't reach it's full potential, but I think it opens up a lot of doors to what dance is and it's potential to interact with theater and text, and live musical performance, which is exciting.
I may use your blog as a dance review for comp with Donna tomorrow, hope you don't mind! It was listed second when I googled "a quarreling pair dance review", so no telling whose read it. Also, I think Bill T., with all his fame and accessibility, is still an excellent candidate for the hypermedia, even if you don't like his work (he doesn't have to know that) :)


Sarah A.O. Rosner/The AOMC said...

Hey Larissa,
Always great to get another perspective - thanks for posting! I do agree with your point about Jones's blending of dance/theater/text/etc. - it's interesting to watch that being attempted, even if it's not (in my opinion) 100% on point. It's good to remember that investigations into new ways of working aren't always successful, but often very necessary in order to reach the next piece where everything integrates beautifully.

And my hypermedia systems are ALWAYS open for Jones's use, no matter the product he is making. I think one of the points of hypermedia (for me) is that it illuminates the hidden process - for me i think much of the making of this piece (for example, i was reading in another review that this story has been on Jones's "to do" list for a number of years, and has "personal significance' although it didn't really specify more than that) might have been more interesting for me to watch than the product itself.

Good points.
I look forward to more responses from you!