Dance icon Bill T. Jones confounds expectations about race and the power of stereotypes in two new dance pieces.
“Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger” and “Mercy 10×8 On a Circle” by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
By Debra Cash
Bill T. Jones would no doubt take umbrage at being compared to the white racist Mr. Head in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” the short story that inspired a pair of important new works he has created for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. When O’Connor first published “The Artificial Nigger” in the spring of 1955, Jones was 3. But O’Connor says one thing about Mr. Head that fits Jones: “Sixty years had not dulled his responses; his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong character.”
Race has always been one of Jones’ primary subjects. His dance company is multiracial, something that audiences can still not completely take for granted. The son of migrant workers and great-grandson of slaves, Jones came of age in a society bifurcated by race. During the first part of his New York career, he challenged his audiences’ stereotypes of him as a black man. In 1990’s”Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land” he argued race was as arbitrary as it seemed fundamental to the unfolding of personal and communal histories.
The new dance pieces “Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger,” and “Mercy 10×8 On a Circle” build on that political history. These works were created to be presented on the same bill, back to back. Sometimes “Reading” is the first piece, sometimes “Mercy.” (During the company’s recent Boston engagement, presented by the Bank of America Celebrity Series and the Wang Center, “Mercy” came first, at Jones’ request.) Both share country boy suspenders (costumes designed by Liz Prince) and are dominated by a huge disc (by Bjorn Amelan) hanging from or projected against the backdrop. Throughout “Mercy 10×8,” red confetti drifts from the ceiling.
In Flannery O’Connor’s story, a white southerner named Mr. Head takes his 10-year old grandson Nelson on a trip to the big city. His hope is that once exposed to its wickedness, Nelson’s growing defiance will be quashed. Two shocking events transpire during that momentous day in town. Mr. Head repudiates his grandson before a group of townswomen and the two renew their connection when they see a plaster lawn jockey eating a slice of watermelon, an “artificial nigger.” Their connection, flowing from “the common defeat” of Nelson’s dependence and his grandfather’s desperation, feels like Christian mercy to the older man. Its mechanism, however, initiates the little boy into the South’s system of racial contempt.
Bill T. Jones may have a slightly different interpretation of this difficult story, but in “Reading” he edits and retells it, cueing the dancers’ movements to the voices of two on-stage narrators (Rachel Lee Harris and Ryan Hilliard). Not every aspect of “Reading” works. The townspeople strolling about their business lack specificity and the important moment, when Mr. Head reconciles with his grandson while sensing his sinful betrayal, is obscured in a tangle of dancers.
“Reading’s” coup de theatre is that the pair of Mr. Head and Nelson is presented as a white woman and a black woman, as a black man and a white woman, and as a white man and an Asian man. The wonderfully expressive dancers include tiny Ayo Janeen Jackson, the stately Malcolm Low, and the right-as-rain Asli Bulbul, though the company’s program and website don’t identify the personnel.
The only indication of what role any given dancer plays is that Nelson wears a brown jacket and Mr. Head a black one. Jones uses some of O’Connor’s descriptions as literal stage directions, but when it comes to questions of race, he subverts her most explicit descriptions. When Nelson sees his first Negro, a portly old man slowly walking down the aisle of the train going to the city, the gent is portrayed by an elegant blonde woman, Catherine Cabeen.
For Jones, stereotyping is the deadening heart of artificiality. By confounding expectations about what we see on stage, Jones takes us back to the state of grace when, as Mr. Head complains, a six-month-old baby doesn’t know what a nigger is. At the same time, the choreographer demands we retain our adult knowledge of what the ugly epithet has meant and still means and how it has shaped and deformed our perceptions.
Jones stakes a claim to the high ground of classicism in the more abstract “Mercy 10×8 On a Circle.” Some critics have seen this piece as the next installment in Jones’ recent exploration of classical music: he sets the work to the flurry of arpeggios in Glen Gould’s unflagging recording of Beethoven’s “32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor.” But Jones is presenting a moral challenge confronting those who live in a multicultural world: How does something strange become acceptable? Jones’ answer is: through familiarity.
Jones repeats much from “Reading” in “Mercy”: not only the costumes, but the yogic shoulder stands, hand-over-heart testifying, and the head-in-the-stockade pose. But in “Mercy” Jones splices almost imperceptible pauses into the sequences. Each gesture freezes, briefly, as if captured in a photograph. He gives his audiences time to see the moves cleanly, to remember, to become familiar with the shapes and their dynamics. When “Mercy 10 x 8” ends, the smaller Nelson figure curled up on the floor (“knees under his chin and heels under his bottom”) while the other dancer sits silhouetted by the disc of light with his back to the sleeper, the shape is satisfyingly recognizable.
Cultures are a place of habitation and habituation, not indisputable natural states. Jones knows that, and so did Flannery O’Connor. It is within the framework of those settings that hate can be taught and mercy stumbled upon. When it comes to race, the forms may be familiar but everything else is a lot more complicated than it looks.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company continues the company’s 20th anniversary tour through France and the United States this spring.