Duke Performances: Bill T. Jones
by Kate Dobbs Ariail
March 19, 2008, Durham, NC: Duke Performances' latest concept series, "Statements of Fact," is designed to highlight the strength of documentary work in Durham, home of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and of Duke's Center for Documentary Studies. Under that rubric, DP brought Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company to Page Auditorium for a performance of its movement theater work, Chapel/Chapter. The event combined the company’s powerful movement style with spoken word, projected video, and live music in a set that worked as courtroom, prison, church and confessional. The piece intercuts three true stories: that of a man, driven by an unexplained fantasy, who killed a whole family; that of a man who killed his "troublesome" daughter by "accident"; and that of a young boy who saw his best friend kill himself at summer camp. The stories are connected by several frenetic variations on "the road to hell": The road to hell is paved with anything you like; these roads look the same, so don't get lost, and so forth.
The intent may have been to make us feel, through the art, more than we often do when bombarded with terrible stories sliced and diced, slicked up and packaged as news. Or it may have been to expose our barren and baffled response to such news. Maybe it was about the powerful release and possible redemption of confessing the truth, however evil or sad. Perhaps it had to do with judgment, mercy or forgiveness — or the casting into outer darkness. Probably all those are correct. Yet the piece did not have the vivid force of fresh news, of the moral failing that shakes the world around it. The work was so highly mediated (and again, maybe that was the point) that one could watch it as a game.
For this viewer, the music was the strongest part of the composition. The video work didn't seem essential to the structure, but without the highly textured music with its searing emotionality, the whole would have collapsed. The music was composed by Lawrence "Lipbone" Redding, Christopher Antonio William Lancaster, singer Alicia Hall Moran and the innovative composer and virtuoso violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, who often works with Bill T. Jones. Neither Roumain nor Moran was present; the vocal part was taken by Jennifer Jade Ledesna, whose powerful voice cuts right through any attempted prevarication like a laser.
Despite the dancers' fierce focus, and the overall intensity of the work, it still seemed distant and pallid, too intellectual, too orderly, compared to the images and sounds filling my mind since the March 5 murder of Eve Marie Carson. Mentally, I ricochet from the gun at her temple, to her scholar's brain blown out in the gray dawn, to her body left to bleed on the road's gray gravel — allegedly by two punks too stupid to realize they were playing to the camera while using the woman's stolen cash card. I bounce from their insouciant "security" photos to images of the hunt, the circling helicopters swooping and droning; the capture, the shackling of a 17-year-old, who in all probability will never dance or sing again — and all the considerable art of Chapel/Chapter seems thin and contrived. Only Lawrence "Lipbone" Redding's apocalyptic guitar chords reached into that fathomless hell, although Lancaster's crazed cello scrabbled on its brink, like a chorus of 10,000 sobbing voices mourning their lost one. For this performance, in this place, at this time, the music was the most powerful aspect of Chapel/Chapter, but I suspect if we weren't struggling with such bad news in the here and now, that Chapel/Chapter would have had a much stronger impact on our normally well-guarded psyches.