Dancing In Death's House

IT'S A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN NEW York, and Bill T. Jones is standing on his head looking peaceful, in a studio full of chairs. He's waiting for nine kids to arrive. When they do, Jones and the young people sit in a circle, and he tells them what he's up to: he's at work on a new dance and he want s their help. Then he asks them to introduce themselves, and he goes first.

"I'm Bill T. Jones, I'm a choreographer, and I'm living with HIV,"

"I'm Paco, I had a brain tumor."

"I'm Laura, and I'm recovering from ovarian cancer."

"I'm Tamika, and I have HIV."

After that, they start over, saying their names again and again-"So it becomes a litany of names," says Jones. Round and round the circle the names flow, first emerging shyly and then effortlessly, as if at last they were freed from their moorings. That's the first exercise. Later Jones has the kids talk about themselves, draw pictures of their lives and create a moment of movement that characterizes themselves. In one exercise, they travel around the room in a loose cluster, with one of them instructed to start toppling over at any time, without warning the others. "Just lean," says Jones. "We're going to be there for you."

Since November 1992, Jones has traveled to 11 cities around the country to conduct and videotape what he calls survival workshops-four-hour sessions with groups of people, ages 11 to 75, who have life-threatening illnesses. "This isn't therapy," he says. "It's about creativity." The words and gestures of the workshop participants became the raw material for Jones's new, evening-length dance, "Still/Here," a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of 20th-century dance seems ensured. Jones, 42, long recognized as a choreographer who thrives on risk, here grapples with material that's almost unfairly powerful. A bright student with lung disease. . . A mother hoping her children won't have to watch her die . . . Jones himself, whose HIV status is as well known as his superb dancing. . . How much skill does it take to get an audience to dab its eyes over subjects like these? Not much, but this isn't a piece about people sadly wasting away. It's about living-about how to live in the same house as death, when the house is your body.

"Still/Here," which had its premiere in Lyons, France, in September and will tour the United States through April (box), is also a remarkable example of how artistic collaboration was really meant to work. The forces onstage are considerable: Jones's choreography, performed by his company; Gretchen Bender's haunting video imagery, abstracted from the workshops and other sources, shown on five screens that come and go during the evening; Robert Wierzel's evocative lighting, and taped music by contemporary composer Kenneth Frazelle and rock guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour. Both composers weave excerpts from the workshops into their scores, and Frazelle's songs are performed by the great folk singer Odetta in a wonderfully grizzled voice that bespeaks lifetimes. But these extraordinary effects neither distract from one another nor clamor for our attention. On the contrary, it's as a single imagination has choreographed everything onstage into a seamless whole.

That imagination, of course, belongs to Jones, one of the most important artists at work in dance today. What distinguishes him is his intellectual daring, his commitment to issues of race, sexuality, community, God. Jones's work isn't didactic, for he never puts movement at the service of his ideas. It goes the other way: his convictions fire and propel the sumptuous quality of his choreography.

For years, Jones looked like a carved, black Buddha, with his high cheekbones, wide-set eyes and impassive gaze. Then he grew dreadlocks, and his expression became sweeter, as if to make up for the tough hair. Now he's cropped his hair close, and with the glasses he wears as he goes over rehearsal notes with his dancers, he could be a high-school science teacher. Behind the calm expression, though, his mind is going at a gallop. Just before opening night of "Still/Here," he gave five interviews in a row to French TV crews, each time answering virtually the same dozen or so questions, without repeating himself. Once, during a press conference in Lyons, he interrupted himself in midparagraph. His translator looked at him expectantly. "Do you have a term for bullshit here?" Jones asked. Then he barreled on.

But it's rarely bull. Life has given him a great deal to say. Raised in upstate New York, he was one of 12 kids in a God-fearing household: "Every night my mother got down and prayed, in her nightgown, and it was a sanetitled moment. You were not allowed to talk to her." His work is still rooted in the zeal and theatricality of old-fashioned preaching. At the state university in Binghamton, N.Y., he became a dancer, and he also fell in love with Arnie Zane. Small, wiry and Jewish, with a fondness for trying on women's makeup, Zane would be Jones's opposite and partner for the next 17 years. Over time they assembled a dance company in their own image: different sizes, shapes and races, men and women happy to hoist one another without regard to gender. In 1988, Zane died of AIDS. The company kept going; it's still called the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

Diagnosed HIV-positive 10 years ago, Jones is in excellent health; he does 90 minutes of calisthenics every morning and continues to dance, direct and choreograph. He's finishing his autobiography, to be published by Pantheon, and recently won a MacArthur "genius" award. "When I tell someone I'm HIV-positive I can see in their eyes that they feel sorry for me, that I'm already dead," he says. "And that makes me mad. When did I cross over?"

Two years after losing Zane, Jones gathered up every conviction he had and put them into a sprawling work called "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land." The title pretty much says it. In one unforgettable scene after another, Jones laid bare the harsh questions of suffering and redemption that even great dance rarely asks. He invited ministers on-stage to answer his questions; he danced while his mother sang a gospel hymn; an ex-con named Justice performed his own story in rap. In every city where "Uncle Tom" played, the company recruited 40 or so local people to appear onstage at the end with the dancers, all of them singing, all of them naked. "When 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' was over, I thought I had said everything I could say and now I was ready for the unknown," says Jones. "I was wrong. Those naked bodies were about making us all equal. But we aren't. I wanted to make a piece about death, the thing that unites us."

"Still," the first and more elegiac half of "Still/Here," opens with the company reciting and demonstrating the movement vignettes created by the workshop participants, "I like to hit the inside pitch," says a dancer, doing a quick swing of an imaginary bat. "Engulfing the whole universe," says another, with a sweep of her arms. Dozens of these gestures appear and reappear throughout the dance. The participants' faces appear, too, on the video screens, starting with a sweet-faced girl who looks like a boy, because she has no hair. Excerpts from the workshops can be heard, background noise and all: "I remember her eyes, because when she looked at me, I knew the results," a woman says in a broad Boston accent. "I said to her, 'Let's have it straight up, yes or no'." Later the video imagery turns into a visual scream, an explosion of teeth, eyes, bones and body parts. Willowy Odile Reine-Adelaide rips into a frantic solo, one hand on her breast and the other at her crotch. "I'm still a woman, but a part of me is gone," sings Odetta. By the end of "Still," the video images have turned to triumph--a boy whirling in karate, a woman lifting her arms like wings--and while some dancers have started to fall, others support them and keep going.

"Here" is grittier, because it's about determination. Reid's score is cacophonous. Video images of big, pulsing hearts appear, and muscular Arthur Aviles does a buoyant solo, as wondrous as if an angel carved in stone had begun to soar. "Walk your life," we hear Jones saying gently at a workshop. "Take us to your death." Jones, who debated dancing in the piece but finally chose not to, does take part: he appears on a television monitor, which is pushed here and there among the dancers. Occasionally one of them stops and gazes at him, There's a stirring quality of benediction about that calm voice, that good-natured face on the screen. Then the screen turns to chaos and the dancers leap hugely and wildly as the curtain falls.

During the dress rehearsal in Lyons for "Still/Here," Jones sat silently in the audience, watching the whole piece pass in front of him. Suddenly, moments before the end, his voice rang out in the dark. "Danny!" he shouted to company member Daniel Russell. "Split jumps! Big jumps! Now! Now! NOW!" Russell's feet were the last things visible as the curtain came down; he was jumping like mad. Now.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Nov. 5 WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Nov. 18-19 NEW YORK CITY -- Nov. 30-Dec. 3 PORTLAND, ORE. -- Jan. 13-15 LAWRENCE, KANS. -- Jan. 25 SEATTLE -- Feb. 23-25 STATE COLLEGE, PA. -- March 18 ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- March 25 LINCOLN, NEB. -- March 28 CHICAGO -- March 31-April 2 BOSTON -- April 20-22 LOS ANGELES -- April 28-29