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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

The Revolution Will Be Danced
By Zita Allen
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Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance
Bill T. Jones/Arnie
Zane Dance Co.
In a darkened theater in New York City in 1998 -- decades after the last slave ship unloaded its human cargo off the shores of South Carolina (the African's Ellis Island), after plantations became a thing of the past, minstrel shows had given way to vaudeville, and early African-American dance pioneers grappled with issues of identity and artistic freedom -- black choreographers still struggled to be free to dance. Of course, many battles have been and are being won every day. And these artists were not alone -- standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them were a phalanx of friends, allies, and companeros. Nevertheless, the truth is that the struggle does continue.

Witness a performance by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Theatre of Jones' evening-long "Still/Here." The piece opened with 10 dancers -- black, white, Hispanic, and Asian, male and female, tall, short, thin, and portly -- who stood in a straight line onstage and called out the first names of survivors struggling valiantly to live with AIDS, breast cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses. As this mixed-media performance piece unfolded, the dancers executed movements that the survivors had indicated in earlier encounter group sessions most reflected who they were and how they felt about their illness. The survivors' prerecorded voices were part of the dance's accompaniment. One dancer clutched her breast violently as a survivor's voice plumbed the depths of despair while struggling to hang on to hope. Another's movements enacted memories of his mother's bout with cancer. A modern-day griot, Jones employed a blend of theater, movement, spoken words, music, and larger-than-life video images to tell a tale of the struggle to survive with dignity.

He did it so well, in fact, that when "Still/Here" premiered in 1994, it ignited a firestorm of controversy. Refusing to review "victim art" that forced her to feel sorry for "dissed blacks, abused women or disenfranchised homosexuals," NEW YORKER critic Arlene Croce, one of the country's most powerful critics, slammed this work by one of the most eminent contemporary choreographers. She charged that Jones had "crossed the line between theatre and reality" by choosing to wrestle publicly with a private personal dilemma.

Even as a debate raged in a polarized cultural community and in the pages of NEWSWEEK, TIME, THE NEW YORK TIMES, and THE NEW YORKER, which offered an insightful piece by Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it was hard to ignore a telling irony. In the past, when an African-American artist stood at the center of controversy, it was almost certain that the issue that triggered the brouhaha was his or her blackness. Here, that was not the case. The issue was not Jones' blackness and his artistic statements regarding historical, social, political, or economic persecution; instead, it was Jones' decision to highlight issues of living with HIV, cancer, or other "terminal" illnesses.

"Critics, journalists, cultural commentators ... reached for the sword." Some took Croce to task for not seeing a work she chose to lambaste; others, including NEW YORK TIMES critic Frank Rich, insisted she had missed "the story of our time." Still others, like Pulitzer -prize-winning author Tony Kushner, said they felt "dissed." Richard Goldstein, executive editor of the VILLAGE VOICE, lashed out at her for "raging against minorities." Jones told Gates, "My critics say that I'm a bad artist, because I don't really know how to dance. 'Art does this, politics does that, and social work does this,' they say. I don't recognize these boundaries."

Boundaries have cluttered African-American artists' landscape for hundreds of years. Two years before the "Still/Here" controversy, the boundaries constraining African-American writers, as described by Toni Morrison, were strikingly similar to those holding back dancers. In "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," based on a series of lectures delivered at Harvard University, Morrison spoke of a knowledge that "holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed and unshaped by[,] the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first Africans and then African-Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence -- which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture -- has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture's literature." In fact, she said, our national literature is assumed to have come from an "Americanness" that has absolutely nothing to do with black folks, and to be "without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States." On the contrary, Morrison insisted, if you want to understand American literature you have to consider the black presence.

Photo: © Gary Friedman.

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