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Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company: You Walk?

Tries to Run, but Stumbles

By Bence Olveczky

Staff Writer

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

Presented by Dance Umbrella

Choreography by Bill T. Jones

Additional choreography by Janet Wong

Medieval dances reconstructed by Valerie Williams

The Emerson Majestic Theatre

March 21-25

Three years ago the city of Bologna asked Bill T. Jones to create a piece reflecting on Latin-Mediterranean culture. The African-American choreographer accepted the challenge and the result, You Walk?, could be seen in Boston last week. But the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company fail to walk their walk, answering the question in the show’s title with a disappointing no. Aiming for poetry-in-motion, the world-renowned dance group’s performance ends up feeling a lot more like pretentiousness-in-action.

The evening starts out with the choreographer himself sitting in a throne-like armchair reading ceremoniously from The Lusiads, a 16th-century Portuguese epic about Vasco da Gama’s voyage of discovery. But the passages from Luiz de CaÑoes’s classic, which are recited throughout the show to describe, in a poetic language, the meeting of cultures, are more confusing than catalytic.

Jones clearly has an agenda, and it seems to have more to do with the colonizing tendencies of the “Old World” than with the radiance of Latin-Mediterranean culture. While his approach may be justified, the message he is delivering is wrapped in a highly esoteric and pseudo-philosophical blanket that is both pretentious and confusing. Projected titles preceding each of the nine separate pieces (such as “we wore time shamelessly” and “you saw an endless line expanding”), and meaningless, if elaborate, program notes do not provide a focus either.

Despite his shortcomings as a poet or a philosopher, Bill T. Jones is still an enormously talented choreographer with a painter’s eye and a musician’s ear. The production starts off with tunes from Africa, medieval Europe, and the Amazon, and is accompanied by highly stylized versions of the respective cultures’ traditional dances.

The musical centerpiece, however, is San Ignacio, a “lost opera” composed by a group of 18th-century Jesuit missionaries working in the Amazon region. The dancing accompanying this baroque piece evokes scenes from the Bible and images of Christian worship, with a half-naked female dancer, Toshiko Oiwa, being some kind of Jesus figure. Her role is unclear as she repeatedly runs across the stage with a gigantic red banner, projecting the aura of a conquering communist.

The second half of the show stands in stark contrast to the first, being lighter and a lot less contrived. It is performed, in part, to John Cage’s composition Empty Words, which is essentially melodious gibberish. Responding in kind, the dancers start to communicate in tongues. They leave their roles as Jesus, the communist, etc., to engage in humorous interactions, making fun of each other’s performances during the first act. The show continues in a light-hearted spirit with a series of beguiling Portuguese folk songs and bravura dancing.

The climax of the evening is a solo performed by the 49-year-old Bill T. Jones to a Portuguese ballad. The rest of the company frames the old master’s dance by freezing in their positions. It’s powerful to see the HIV-positive dancer, still very much in control, perform what inadvertently comes across as a swan song.

Few choreographers can match his ability to combine movements and music with visually stunning images, and make it feel like a harmonious, inseparable whole. In his best moments, Bill T. Jones can be cathartic, but in You walk? he simply reaches too far.