On Saturday November 19, once again UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance became the playground for Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and his newest piece, What Problem? It was conceived and directed by Jones who also designed and choreographed this challenging thought-provoking work with Janet Wong, the Associate Artistic Director.
This concept came out of Jones’ realization of his own deep loneliness during these divisive times, embellished by the Color Line and the encroachment of middle age so stealthfully moving in on him. To begin the piece and find that feeling again, he went to “where [it] was most alive…24 hour news, Black Lives Matter…” Then he went into the studio with his company. He called them his life raft, buoying his inspiration with their remarkable craftsmanship, love and dedication. This gave him reason to continue his journey. A good part of his search came out of the words of W.E.B. Du Bois’ in “The Soul of the Black Folk,” Martin Luther King “I had a dream, and Melville’s Moby Dick, recognizing Pip’s character as not insignificant to his own consciousness.
As the lights dimmed we discovered Jones perched on a special raised pit, a music stand placed in front of him. An amber light enhanced his powerful face; and when he began to speak his voice resonated with the confidence of one who had something important to share. He introduced himself, informing the audience that he would not be dancing that evening. The cause, an “injured ankle.” However, as I soon saw throughout the evening, his presence was like a spirit that guided us, informed us, and gently moved us from what we thought we knew …to a new paradigm.
Accompanying the piece was the musical versatility and vocal gymnastics of Phillip Bullock, Shag Hester, Stacy Penson, and Dev Woodson. They helped bring to life Jones’ verbal collages with thrilling Gospel, Rap, and the powerful Alan Lomax recordings of prison work songs, with original compositions by Nick Hallett and electronic score by HPrizm (AKA High Priest, Rena Anakwe, and Holland Andrews).
The spirited company of dancers: Barrington Hinds, Jada Jenai, Shane Larson, S. Lumbert, Danielle Marshall, Marie Lloyd Paspe, Jacoby Pruitt, Nayaa Opong, Huiwang Zhang held me in their spell both at rest and in action. The floor or air was no limit for them. Lines of hooked arms, rolling bodies, hinging hip hop, and lyrical movements was the stylistic montage that informed the work. Whatever actions needed to communicate the message they did with kinetic eloquence. Solos by brilliant Opong and Hinds, pulled the group together with music and words becoming the Greek Chorus upon which Jones’ tone poem floated.
He started the piece with the words mixed, jumbled and set backwards (anastrophe). A part of the texts used was from MLK’s, “Dream have I a”… I have a Dream speech. This was initially confusing but became more coherent as all the elements came together. This was the bedrock upon which he built his thesis.
In the Program Notes, he courageously challenges some stated views for reconsideration:
“The “Color Line” for Du Bois represented the epitome of otherness, yet we now understand this is much more complex. In our fractious era, I am compelled to elaborate on this “line” in terms of sexual politics, gender identity, class struggles, and especially at this moment in time, immigration.” (Bill T. Jones)
It is in this piece he brings to light the complexity and confusion of living in not only a world of hate and otherness, but in the BOT-world of manipulation, mixing all our histories, hatreds, and maneuverings into one. He uses the revered words of Martin Luther King, with Kendrick Lamar’s “Never Catch Me” but also Pip’s lesson in Moby Dick.
One could not miss the powerful spirit amongst the outstanding company members and surprisingly the Gospel segment added 26 pre-selected multi-racial community members to the stage which shared a new spirit in the rollicking union.
In the finale, “What Problem?” united all the members of this diverse group. Two mics were set onstage which allowed the performers to speak their truth. Each individually began with “I Know…” then stating the phrase with simplicity, they disappeared, eventually leaving the stage empty and the audience with their collective memories. It is clear, this piece is not to be experienced lightly, it’s a wake-up call that needs to be done personally and collectively. As always Bill T. Jones, the soothsayer, has created a work that inspires us, and if heeded, gives us hope.
For more information about Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, please visit their website.
For more information about UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, please visit their website.
Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Chronicle.