`Phantom' revisits dance company's earlier works

Bill T. Jones' contemporary dance company revisits some of its earlier works with "The Phantom Project" on Sunday at the Phillips Center.

Courtesy of BILL T. JONES
Published: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 11:56 p.m.

Bill T. Jones has never been about looking back, but he'll do just that Sunday evening in Gainesville.

The 20th anniversary of Jones' contemporary dance company, founded in 1982 with the late Arnie Zane, brings a rare moment of reflection for a man whose movement has been ever forward. The Phillips Center show, called "The Phantom Project," revisits some of the company's most compelling works, reconceived and revisited in a celebration of survival.

"We called it `The Phantom Project' for a reason," Jones said. "Works are ephemeral. It is impossible to retrieve them. You're always chasing a phantom. But in the chasing, something lovely emerges."

The phantom metaphor is especially apt for Jones' company, which has never amassed its multimedia works into a repertoire. It was part of Jones' and Zane's artistic concept that works should be allowed to fall away once they had outlived their usefulness.

"We never thought of the future," Jones said. "Young people never do."

The Gainesville incarnation of "The Phantom Project" includes three pieces, concluding with "Still/Here Looking On," a reworking of the controversial 1994 piece about coping with mortality.

Lambasted as "victim art" by New Yorker critic Arlene Croce - who never deigned to see the piece before critiquing it - "Still/Here" incorporates video footage from workshops Jones conducted for people with terminal diseases. It was conceived as a two-hour stand-alone piece; Jones has reworked it to share billing with two other pieces. Reinventing "Still/Here" was no mean feat.

"It's a big monster of a piece. It's taken a lot to bring it back," Jones said.

The challenges weren't just logistical.

"It takes me back through complicated territory," he said. "I have to also change, to rethink what it means to me. I'm still thinking about the ramifications of this."

While Jones and Zane had 11 fruitful years of collaboration, Jones has been leading the company on his own since his partner died of complications of AIDS in 1988.

Jones has made it his mission to keep Zane's legacy alive, a mission that extends beyond the company's name. Zane's perspectives - in photographs, writing and choreography - still permeate the company's work.

"He has to be a natural and organic part of our thinking," Jones said. "Every dancer in the company has to learn something about him."

Last week, Jones realized a dream when the first major show of Zane's photography opened in New York.

"It's something he always wanted and something I have been laboring since his death to make a reality," Jones said.

Jones and company's Gainesville stop is a product of a long-standing history with University of Florida Performing Arts Director Michael Blachly, who has worked with the group almost since its inception.

"It's been wonderful watching the evolution of the company," Blachly said. "It has been 20 years of truly remarkable growth. Bill is always willing to take risks with the art form. He has never just accepted success and stuck with the status quo. Every time I've worked with Bill, he's had a new idea."

As an example, Blachly points to Jones' "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," featured in 1992 on PBS' "Great Performances," which featured 100 dancers and members of the local community on stage - nude.

"It's not sensationalized. It's not flagrant. It's not used to shock," Blachly said. "He was making a statement that needed to be made."

And while Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performances often include nudity, Jones said that will not be a factor for the Gainesville show - despite some early publicity that warned of the possibility.

Following the performance, Jones will host a talk Blachly said will be "anything but predictable."

He recalled one post-performance discussion where an audience member asked Jones how he chose dancers for his company. Jones let the dancers answer themselves.

"What happened was a living version of `A Chorus Line,' " Blachly recalled. "One of the dancers had followed the company's auditions through three cities, until Bill finally said, `Haven't I seen you before?' Before that, no one had any idea that had happened."

Jones himself shows the same persistence, continuing to perform with the company despite the challenges of a 50-year-old body.

"I have considered stopping, but I keep coming back," he said. "I keep bobbing around like a cork, never resting on my laurels. I need to find in myself some reason to keep going."

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