Dance Review: “What Problem?” — Bill T. Jones’s Angel of History

By Debra Cash

The struggle is to define what the problem is — and to allow the questions to have big, destabilizing, and more honest answers.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in What Problem? Co-presented by FirstWorks and Brown Arts Institute at Brown University, at the VETS, Providence, November 4.

Paul Klee’s 1920 monoprint Angelus Novus (New Angel).

Bill T. Jones has long been as much a soothsayer as a choreographer. As What Problem? opens, Jones, still muscular and arrestingly handsome perching behind a metal music stand, begins to speak in tongues. My ear reached for meaning but the speech was a shattered mix of phrases, religious quotations, and the lyrics to America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee). It sounded as if the original had been translated from an unfamiliar language while retaining its peculiar syntax.

Jones was reading a speech he had first experienced as an 11-year-old at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. But he was reciting it backwards, with the words in retrograde. Jones’s speech resembled nothing so much as Walter Benjamin’s stunned angel of history:

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Jones’s dancers begin to appear as the scrambled text ends, walking, humming, striking luxuriant stretching poses, inhabiting all the time in the world. Then Jones begins to tell another story, a comprehensible one, about the character Pip in Moby Dick, a “forgotten” icon of the weak, Black entertainer. Back in high school when he was first assigned the book, Jones shares, he didn’t take much notice of Pip — but now, he muses, he finds that the role of the “Black exceptional one” is disquieting and all too relevant.

He segues into a personal reworking of postmodern dance and film pioneer Yvonne Rainer’s famous No Manifesto, whose challenges include “NO to your guilty conscience/NO to your guilty pleasures.” He takes a name-dropping detour to a story about partying with Oprah Winfrey on a ship chartered for a celebration of Maya Angelou’s birthday.

With all this provocative textual information, you’d be excused for thinking that the dancing was, well, simple. But it’s not: Jones’s work never is.

Whether the dancers are alone in their paddling arm semaphore (maybe adopted from maritime signaling, maybe just postmodern gesturing), pivoting like rotors, crowding together into “party” scenes where their footwork scuffs and skitters across the stage like popcorn in a hot skillet, or massing into contraptions of diffuse shapes linked together like Tinker Toys, their apparent casualness is offset by the clarity and deliberation behind each gesture. That’s especially true for the charismatic Barrington Hinds and Nayaa Opong, whose solos act as tent pins for different sequences.

For a long time the dancers stay apart, a condition that may derive from What Problem?’s origins in a pandemic-interrupted production called Deep Blue Sea. That work was designed for the cavernous space of New York’s Park Avenue Armory and originally had a video installation set by A-list architect Liz Diller (best known locally as one of the designers behind Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art).

What Problem?’s score is a marvel. With a mix of gospel, rap, and archival Alan Lomax recordings of prisoners’ work songs, composer Nick Hallett and his collaborators (HPrizm aka High Priest, Rena Anakwe, and Holland Andrews) shift in almost telepathic alignment with Jones’s literary and gestural impulses. The performers — Phillip Bullock, Shaq Hester, Stacy Penson, and Dev — dip into those different traditions with dignity and gorgeous gospel harmonies.

Jones’s movements return, truly simplified this time, with the entrance of a multiracial cast of 26 Providence community members ranging in age from high school students to people in their 70s. They freeze in some of the easier-to-do and supported poses, balanced in a plié or standing with elbows at right angles. They throw invisible stones against a group that locks elbows and moves inexorably forward as white smoke rises. Which protest — which era of history — is being portrayed? Jones leaves it up to his audiences’ associations and imagination. But, at the end of the work, he allows each dancer to have their say, removing their masks at a pair of microphone stands to share sentences that always begin with the words “I know.”

“I know my want for connection comes at the expense of erasure.”

“I know I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

“Don’t lose the irony of the title,” Bill T. Jones counseled his audience during Friday’s post-show talk back. On the verge of midterm elections that challenge the very notion of democratic enfranchisement, “they say ‘you people’ are a problem and the next step is ‘when we have the power we are going to kill your ass.’ That’s what vigilantes are.”

The struggle is to define what the problem is — and to allow the questions to have big, destabilizing, and more honest answers.

Debra Cash is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance and serves on the Board of the Arts Fuse.


  1. John Killacky on November 7, 2022 at 5:51 am

    Wonderful insightful review, thank you.

  2. Nancy Compton on November 12, 2022 at 9:52 am

    Thank you Debra! A wonderful review of one of the best dance performances I have seen for it’s far-reaching depth. Socrates comes to Providence. Yes, the music score was indeed a marvel. It keeps returning to me. Wasn’t that ping sound extraordinary?

  3. Renata Sack on November 13, 2022 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you Debra Cash for your intelligent accounting of What Problem?

    I’m an old (age and time) friend of Bill T Jones and have been in awe of his intellect and abilities ever since.
    He is extraordinary in my eyes.

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