Review: 'A Quarreling Pair' by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company
No other writer nails the mute fascism of ordinary life, the desire of people to control other people without in any way comprehending them, better than Jane Bowles. An expatriate lesbian married to the novelist Paul Bowles, a gay man, himself the Chekhov of arbitrary violence, she specialized in the wayward upper middle class. A Jane Bowles character typically daydreams about becoming a religious leader while scheming to box someone else in - usually a sister. Her peculiar feat as a writer is to render the banal into something subtly unhinging via a mélange of alienation effects - deliberate flatness, the artlessly toxic tangent. It is said that she was poisoned by her Moroccan girlfriend, Cherifa. I can understand why she would appeal to choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, a specialist in alienation effects of his own.
The first work of his I saw - circa 1983 - must have been among the first which he and Arnie Zane staged. It cleverly connected the performance space of the Dance Theater Workshop with its foyer by a series of mirrors placed at sequential angles and running from room to room, so that we saw Jones at various degrees and at different sizes and in different spaces from our seats. This was not a fluke. One of the great strengths of Jones as a theatrical artist is his continually inventive use of the stage space - and the audience space, too - which is sometimes overlooked due to his incendiary subject matter and the suspicion of propaganda which attends it. “A Quarreling Pair” was like being in the entrails of a telescope as it turned; flat space yielded to deep space as through the turning of a dial; it was thrilling on that level alone.
Wildly stylized African-American argot, lifted from the street and pulpit alike, sometimes made me feel in the early days of the Jones/Zane company that I was listening to oratory rather than watching choreography, so overpowering was it. I felt scolded and chastened by this outpouring of language, cut up in the best post-modernist Burroughs-esque manner into minatory fragments, as well as the use of Gospel, blues, rock & roll, and hip hop. It felt loud and threatening, and for good reasons. Too loud, I thought then. Now I think Jones had plenty to be loud about being a gay black man, and that he put hot rage under cold control, as an artist must.
I also had to digest a cartoonish cast their work took on when Jones and Zane formed a company. It was cartoonish in the ways of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tex Avery, and Saul Steinberg - choreo-graffito, one might call it. The idea was that one must sign space in a rapid, unforgettable stroke - and it brought a new element of low humor to modern dance. Jones still uses it. Almost the first thing that happens during Asli Bulbbul's solo in “A Quarreling Pair” is that she pulls a banana then a rubber chicken from her crotch.
But what is it, honestly, in the early cartoons which makes us squirm? Not Mickey Mouse conducting a barnyard version of the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2, but the minstrel show black people are inevitably made into. Skeletal Cab Calloway playing marimbas made of bones at the bottom of the sea for Betty Boop is harmless enough, but our collective memory of more demeaning images is not exactly in deep storage. Jones takes all the golliwogs and minstrel shows and watermelons out of storage and into consciousness. Nor is he just trying to bugger us. To confront one's demons - which is what a stereotype disguises - to find them fearful and then ridiculous, is to grow. What Jones confronts these things as the mechanisms of delusion in order to exorcise them, and send us down another road.
“A Quarreling Pair” takes Bowles' puppet play and turns it inside out. The action in the original is confined to the rooms of the two puppets -the stage subdivided by string - and implies that the spat which is almost the sole event of the play happens daily; hell is other puppets. Jones sends the Miss Harriet puppet on an journey beginning with a failed stint as a chanteuse, and followed by a sideshow of Jones' choreo-graffito cartoons, each with its own special race or gender infraction. But this sounds schematic when in practice it seems near-anarchic: in one episode three female dancers mime a torch-song while clad in sombreros - not on their heads, mind you, but fore and aft. The crowns of the sombreros are red, so that the dancers resemble nipples with limbs, something strayed from the polymorphous perverse dreams of Stanley Baxter or Madonna.
The duet called the Rehab Brothers is a homoerotic wrestling match between black dog and white master; master, of course, holds the bone. This segment looked uncannily like a Keith Haring painting come to life. Though it was bizarre and very funny, I found it beautiful, too, in that Haring (d. 1990) remains a presence in Jones work, just as Arnie Zane's name remains in lights though AIDS took him more than 20 years ago.
Jones' dancers are characteristically stocky little pistons with a great deal of torque. They are gifted actors, which is much rarer in dance than is admitted, and they managed to make Jones' fantasia on Bowles emotionally charged even as they bring off difficult moves casually. The danger of an episodic technique like Jones' is failure of momentum, but they sustained the flight.
And something wonderful happened. Just as I was starting to feel fatigued with Miss Harriet's sufferings at the hands of the Mommie Dearest-like drag-queen La Torita (played with nail-spitting venom by Erick Montes), Jones suddenly glides into another sphere. The curtains part; we see beautiful, vaguely menacing imagery - a cloud sized horse, scenes from history - projected on double scrims. In the remote left stage rear Harriet continues her journey, while upstage far right the entire company performs with a solemn hierarchal relentlessness new to the work. It opens up space literally and ethically, like passing from the realm of bondage into the realm of knowledge. All the scary, obscene, absurd, or pathetic things which preceded this should not have lead to such vistas, but they did. And the final tableau has the quality of earned but inexplicable resolution.
Strange, but no stranger than that I was watching Jones' company in a town once too racist for me to live in, though I am white, and during Black History month, and following the election of the first African American president. Jones, too, had made history, as one of the first African American choreographers not to apologize, dumb down, or fake uplift. Instead, he proved to be one of the smartest choreographers of his generation; and kept the name of his dead lover alive.