'Still/Here' Treats Tough Subject

The work by Bill T. Jones has raised controversy about art that some critics say plays off of 'victimhood' or martyrdom

'Still/Here,'' the much-debated dance by choreographer Bill T. Jones, explores how people cope with serious illness. It is a luminous, well-crafted work that hovers somewhere between depressing and uplifting, dipping briefly into both camps.

Mortality is never an easy topic, and Jones handles his potentially maudlin subject with restraint and intelligence. But ''Still/Here'' is not the masterpiece some people claim, nor is it an example of so-called ''victim art,'' as a prominent reviewer put it.

Jones is arguably the second most influential American modern-dance choreographer after Mark Morris, and ''Still/Here'' is his most ambitious project ever. So even people who would probably not go see the piece have encountered discussions of it, and reactions to it, in the news media since its premiere in September.

(The New Yorker's dance critic, Arlene Croce, slammed the choreographer's use of images and words taken from people diagnosed as terminally ill, calling it manipulative. In her words, Jones ''thinks that victimhood in and of itself is sufficient to the creation of an art spectacle.'' In the magazine's year-end issue, she wrote a scathing critique of the work, in spite of the fact that she had not seen it, and admitted as much.)

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company was in Boston last week, sponsored by Dance Umbrella and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, giving theatergoers here the opportunity to see firsthand what the fuss was about.

''Still/Here'' has at its core the experiences, hopes, and fears of participants in Survival Workshops: Talking and Moving About Life and Death, conducted and videotaped by Jones and his collaborators from 1992 to '94.

In the workshops, as described in published reports, Jones guided the volunteers through encounter-like sessions, in which the participants were asked to share a particular movement or gesture that encapsulated their personality or attitude. They also talked about the love of family and friends, about medical treatment that left them feeling unattractive, about loneliness and isolation, disbelief and hope.

As ''Still/Here'' took shape, Jones recruited a video artist, two composers, lighting and set designers, a gospel singer, string quartet, costumer, and drummer to distill the images and words into a collage of dance, music, theater, and video.

The workshop participants do not appear physically onstage, but their expressive faces, projected by way of television monitors, become larger-than-life backdrops for the dance itself.

Jones succeeds in portraying the participants as lively, inquisitive, thoughtful, and courageous people. He does not paint them as victims or objects of pity, but through careful editing of the soundtrack, and of the images, he shows the wholeness of their humanity.

The dancers amplify or act out what is being sung or spoken on the soundtrack.

For example, the first part, ''Still,'' opens with dancers standing in a straight line, one behind the other. Each one in turn says a first name of someone from the survival workshop and demonstrates the movement with which that person has defined himself or herself. The dancer, momentarily becoming that person, explains what the gesture signifies, like a code. The audience grasps that, through choosing a movement, the individual has begun to assert his identity apart from the disease. Jones's choreography emphasizes hand holding, touching, and congregating in groups. The strength of community is invoked to offer solace to sufferers, and there is a sense of inclusion, of pulling together.

The images are at times stark and unrelenting: A model human heart undulates on the video monitor in time to music. Quick cuts, MTV-style, show open mouths, chests, hands, and X-rays.

Near the end, in an unexpected and rare misstep, Jones goes over his carefully established line. On the soundtrack, the sonorous-voiced choreographer is heard gently saying to the workshop participants, ''Can you picture your death? Can you feel it? Can you own it?'' The dancers flit around a small mobile video monitor, on which Jones himself is displayed, smiling and gesticulating, like some self-help guru.

For this viewer at least, it laid waste to the carefully restrained tone that had dominated until that moment. Such a move plays into the hands of Jones's detractors by indulging in pop psychology and conferring healer status on Jones. The audience can't claim to know what went on in the survival workshops, or what benefit they might have provided the participants. But the segment seemed out of character with the rest of the work.

The debate that erupted after the New Yorker article appeared did not deal with ''Still/Here'' the dance as much as with a critic's role and professional credibility. The discussion also has polarized the arts community, with commentators defending Jones's right to take his art where he finds it, and others arguing that the cult of 'victimhood' has gone too far.

The diatribe has affected the way reviewers respond to the work of Jones, in some instances causing them to praise too highly for fear of being lumped in with those critics they consider uncharitable and politically incorrect.

''Still/Here'' should be respected for what it is, a dance of considerable achievement that invites audiences to deepen their questioning of life and death.

*'Still/Here' tour continues to Los Angeles (April 28-29), Amsterdam (May 3-5), and Pittsburgh (June 3).

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