Groundbreaking Partnership

The celebrated Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company revisits seminal works.

click to enlarge Body Against Body features three illuminating works from the company's early years.
Body Against Body features three illuminating works from the company's early years.

Eight members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company appear this weekend in Body Against Body at the Aronoff Center. The company was founded in 1982 by Bill T. Jones and his partner Arnie Zane, who died in 1988. Cincinnati audiences will see three illuminating pieces that return to company roots: Duet X 2 and Shared Distance — both small, intimate works from 1982 performed in silence — and Continuous Replay, an early solo concept from Zane most recently revised as a full company piece in 1994, set to “Music for Octet” composed and assembled by Jerome Begin from Beethoven string quartets.  

Jones soldiered on after Zane’s death. Today their company is one of the most acclaimed in the dance-theater world — it has performed in some 200 cities in 40 countries on every continent. Jones’ major honors include a MacArthur (“Genius”) Award, the Kennedy Center Honors and two Tony Awards for Best Choreography.  

Jones was born in Florida to itinerant farm workers and raised in New York State. Though he starred as a high school track athlete, he soon discovered dance. He met Zane in college. The two young men made an unlikely pair. 

Born in the Bronx, Zane was small, lithe and Italian-Jewish, with an interest in photography and martial arts. Jones was tall, black and powerfully built, adept at movement but also fluent in the conceptual and choreographic realms. Their early duets exploited their physical differences. 

“They were also inspired by avant-gardism,” says the company’s associate artistic director Janet Wong. “They thought they were being ‘badasses.’ They were doing very intimate work. Subject matter tended to civil rights, identity politics and counterculture movements. The two were also pioneers in the use of contact improvisation, a weight-sharing technique, to generate movement.” 

Reviving these early pieces in a program the company calls Body Against Body, Wong says, is a way that audiences and current company members can meet and know Zane. And though the works take on new life through the diverse dancers in the company today, they remain conceptually and physically rigorous, and reflect some of the most significant examples of the postmodern aesthetic, which counts everyday movement as a valid art form.   

Dancers Jenna Riegel and Talli Jackson recently discussed their roles in the Cincinnati production. Riegel dances two roles originated by Zane. Jackson performs in all three works, twice in roles originated by Jones.    

Both appear in Shared Distance, a duet originally danced by Jones and Zane. 

After Zane’s death, a petite firecracker of a woman named Julie West took on his role, according to Riegel, who dances that role this weekend. 

“In the spirit and nature of the duets Bill and Arnie were making, there was task-based material, but the dance was also an exploration of the dynamic of their personalities,” she says. “Bill talked a lot with me about this. For me, it was about being smaller but spunkier, with attitude. Sort of like, ‘Anything you can do, I can. If you’re gonna lift me, I’m gonna lift you.’ ”

Jackson, who, at 6-foot-2, is a full foot taller than Riegel, says there is a wonderful spectrum in the piece between athletic moves and movements of real subtlety and tenderness, all held together within a very clean formal structure and a beautiful, spare post-modern sensibility.

Both dancers find the absence of music to be liberating. “Rhythm and musicality and dynamics are recalled and understood or found between the two dancers each time it is performed,” Riegel says. “There is freedom on any given night (regarding) how long the piece might be.”

Jackson thinks music has a tremendously powerful presence in space. 

“With silence, there can be a vast emptiness somewhat parallel to a blank page,” he says. “It can be scary. But, at the same time, it’s easier to focus on internal rhythms and musicality. It allows us to sing our own songs with our own bodies, to listen to our partner. It starts to be about, ‘What rhythm are we going to play tonight?’ and a subtle difference in my partner can add spice or sensual sparkle.”  

Continuous Replay, the evening closer, has been called a locomotive of a piece. 

“It’s based on an accumulation of 45 phrases by Arnie, choreographed in the gym where they rehearsed,” Wong says. “Arnie was a karate master, attuned to sharp, precise motions. He eventually made that dance into a solo.”

After Zane’s death, with a performance date set but with no company piece because of a dancer's family emergency, Jones made the solo into a full company piece. The lead role is called “the clock.” It’s the dancer who leads the accumulation of phrases. 

“As more and more dancers enter the stage, they put on more and more of their costumes as the phrases accumulate,” Wong says. “We’d always only had a feisty, precise male dancer to Arnie’s part as ‘clock,’ but about five years ago we thought Jenna would be good. She has that kind of mind.” 

“Bill and Arnie had an interest in film and this idea of 24 frames per second,” Riegel says. “So they often choreographed with still shapes making a series — having movements arise from transitioning from one shape to another. And, as ‘clock,’ basically, I set the pace for everything that happens around the phrase collection. I’m very honored to be the first female to dance the role.” 

Wong says she and Jones are proud of the early works the company performs today. “I think the ones we revive have survived the test of time,” she says. “I think they have a formal, honest athleticism, and for me they still stand up well.”

She says every time there’s a revival Jones makes some changes. “He’s grown,” Wong says. “Things change. When we revive, we also ask, ‘How do we let go of gender?’ We freed it up because the dancers are making some sort of connection to reflect a sort of shorthand Bill and Arnie had. It’s not just formal structuralism we are repeating, it’s about their life — their connection.” 


Contemporary Dance Theater presents Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s BODY AGAINST BODY Friday and Saturday at the Aronoff Center. Tickets/more info: cdt-dance.org/billtjones16.

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