Once upon a time, choreographer Bill T. Jones was considered the modern dance world's most visible "angry young man." In works such as "Last Night on Earth," "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin," and the epic but controversial "Still/Here," his creativity has been fired by hot issues and challenging social concerns. He has not been afraid to provoke, anger, offend, even preach in order to reach and move his audiences. Dance in general has been richer and a great deal more relevant because of it.
During the past few years, however, Jones has been less the angry young man than a focused, more mature artist who is very glad to be alive. (Ten years ago he was diagnosed as HIV positive.)
Jones's interests now lie less in furthering a specific agenda than in exploring and codifying the extraordinary moves that emanate with vigor and expressivity from his own body.
In his annual Dance Umbrella concerts of mixed repertory in Boston last week, Jones revealed his two latest works, both given their world premire. Jones is focusing on more formal concerns than in the past. While this makes for work that is harder to get a peg on and thereby less resonant, his exposition of movement, largely for its own sake and unencumbered by context, is no less challenging than in his earlier repertoire.
"Lisbon," in fact, is generated from earlier repertoire, choreographed in part as a chance to introduce Jones's newer dancers to some of the company's history. It is built on many of the gestures, characteristic isolations, even longer phrases and structuring ideas that are coming to be thought of as Jones's own special stylistic vocabulary.
"Lisbon" is set to a musical collage of quickly changing clips that range from hard rock to lyrical folk material, mostly from Spain and Portugal. These bits, some as short as 10 to 15 seconds, create a sense of disjunction, which Jones's compilation of fairly disparate choreography does little to dispel.
There is great attention to detail and everyday gestures - a clenched fist, a puzzled tug of the ear, a disdainful flick of the nose, a defiant tongue.
There are recurring bursts of sass and attitude, the arms crossed firmly against the chest, a sexy, unctuous roll of the hips or head. Off to one side, the tall, sensuously expressive Odile Reine-Adelaide leads a slow-moving chorus, providing a kind of sustained-movement chant against the more energetic phrases.
Clocking in at just over half an hour, "Lisbon" is a colorful, engaging work, but it doesn't cohere overall. There are some memorable moments, mostly in longer sections when Jones allows a musical selection to play itself out and provide a sense of context for the evolving movement.
Midway through, there is a circus-like section that is unforgettable. The piping of wooden flutes and Janet Wong's magisterial drumbeat usher in the arrival of Josie Coyoc, who slowly enters from the wings standing tall, regal, and commanding on the back of Germaul Barnes, crawling with an elephantine deliberation. The corps immediately begins a compelling ritualistic ceremony of homage.
And the work's final tableaux, with its flurry of entrances, exits and moments of repose, provides a perfect close, as dancers are cast in silhouette and framed by a slowly lowered black backdrop.
The abstract duet "G&B," which Jones danced with the luminous Janet Wong, is set to the music of Mozart. (The piece evolved out of a longer, larger work commissioned by the Lyon Opera Ballet, where he was resident choreographer from 1994-1995.) The music - movements from a string quartet, a divertimento, and an aria - gives a different color and tone to the movement, which ranges from Jones's playful, slightly rude wiggles and shimmies to Wong's extraordinarily elegant and luxuriously long-lined stretches and curls.
It is thrilling to see Jones perform - whether soaring through the air or hunched in a squat, he dances his own works like nobody else, with both impeccable technical facility and extraordinary presence and spirit.
* The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will appear in Austin, Texas, March 31-April 1; Seattle, April 3-April 5; San Francisco, April 6-7, Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 27-28; Rio de Janeiro, May 30-31; American Dance Festival, Durham, N.C., July 8-13; Jacob's Pillow, Beckett, Mass., July 13-20.