Bill T. Jones Dancers Deal in Imagination

World tour program includes `Fete,' an unqualified triumph, and the less-successful `Last Night on Earth'

BILL T. JONES is an undeniably powerful figure in American dance. The 10th anniversary season of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which passed through Boston last week on its current tour, offers potent proof of his talent and ambition.

For sheer imagination and inventiveness of movement, Mr. Jones surpasses even the titan of modern dance, Mark Morris. While Mr. Morris sometimes repeats favorite gestures that can make his dances too cutesy, Jones manages to choreograph movement that is fresh and surprising. An example of this, presented on the tour, is a dance called "Fete."

The piece is brilliant and engrossing. On stage, three medieval-looking torches burn, casting a red glow on the proceedings. Ten dancers form a circle, bowing, promenading, and capering around each other in an exaggerated court dance with tribal overtones. They are costumed in wacky black, red, and white boudoir outfits: flouncy merry widows with trains, sleeveless velvet tunics with Elizabethan neck ruffs, and patterned stockings.

The whole look is "Alice in Wonderland" meets "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

The humor in "Fete" is supplied by male dancer Sean Curran, whose female garb includes ridiculously funny headgear. Clearly, his character is an outsider at the party, dancing as if unbalanced by too-high heels. The character simpers and flirts, trying without much success to find a pairing.

Mr. Curran's comedic abilities give the role a befuddled sort of charm, and while the audience may laugh at his antics, they sympathize with the character's dilemma of wanting desperately to fit in.

The other dancers are superb in both abilities and looks. They come in all shapes and sizes (in fact, Jones defies the dance axiom that says only the lithe and physically fit should dance professionally; one company member is a big, roly-poly man with great strength, agility, and hussle). A number of women and men in Jones's troupe have shaved their heads, which adds a further note of primal beauty to "Fete."

Jones has a marvelous eye for shapes, textures, and lines when he groups dancers. In one example, two statuesque black women dance together like Masai warriors, with a kind of hop-and-glide movement. The music consists of voices matted together like a party soundtrack heard through layers of dreams.

The beauty of "Fete" is that it creates an atmosphere complete unto itself: The dance has its own reality, its own logic. Rarely does a choreographer envision a dance and so totally recreate it that all the characters, gestures, details, steps, and attitudes become a shared experience with the audience. "Fete" is an outstanding achievement.

Less successful is Jones's solo piece, "Last Night on Earth," which seems more like a performance-art work than a dance. In it, Jones vents his anger and frustration at a world of sexual, religious, and racial intolerance. The choreographer has been diagnosed as HIV positive; his longtime companion and the troupe's co-founder, Arnie Zane, died in 1988 of what was diagnosed as AIDS.

It's not surprising, then, that "Last Night on Earth" is powered by grief and by the fear of dying. In the piece, Jones allows all his negative impulses to come out: lasciviousness, lust, rage, impotence, and mockery. What little costume he wears resembles a Grecian pleated skirt with a sequined undergarment. His gestures are determinedly vulgar and seem to deliberately mock gay stereotypes.

To these movements Jones adds his voice, speaking crudely to the audience, pleading with them, taunting and cajoling them. In a last great wail of anguish, Jones collapses onto a square of white fabric.

"Last Night on Earth" is an alienating piece of work, as Jones intends it. Having seen Jones's largely generous and positive work over the years, I was unprepared for this Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation of his personality. While many artists' stock-in-trade involves confrontational tactics and angry polemics, I did not expect that Jones would indulge himself in this way. The motives of such self-revelatory works are often catharsis and purification, but "Last Night on Earth" did not seem all that courage ous or mature for a dancer and choreographer with Jones's extraordinary gifts.

Among the other dances performed the evening I attended, "Soon" was the most noteworthy.

Once again, Sean Curran brought a jaunty savoir-faire to this piece along with partner Maya Saffrin. The set of dances comprise a wry take on love, with high energy and spirits. Jones energizes the choreography here, nearly always finding the right musical moment to build momentum in the dance.

* The company performs tonight through March 26 at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. Other stops on the world tour include: Lyon, France; New York; Toronto; Budapest; Prague; Edinburgh; Aarhus, Denmark; Los Angeles; Norfolk, Va.; and Montreal.

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