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Those who had the pleasure of seeing choreographers Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane move together witnessed a spectacular union of opposites. Zane—short and compact, a swarthy, sinewy gymnast who resembled Buster Keaton—offered a strong contrast to Jones, a long, muscular African American of regal bearing and formidable presence. The two men, lovers and collaborators and business associates for 25 years, were the postmodern answer to the tired pas de deux—a kind of kitsch Astaire and Rogers for the ’70s, “next wave” art stars of the ’80s. Yet their pieces, often spawned from simple gestures of everyday life, were as formally structured as they were rife with bold, contrasting images. Jones and Zane knew how to transport their audience.
Then Arnie Zane died of AIDS.
“I was coming apart as he was melting,” Jones writes in his stunning memoir Last Night on Earth. “There was no dance tour to divert me. There was no party, no bathhouse. There were days and weeks of waiting, of carrying ginger ale from downstairs to upstairs, of administering Tylenol to fight fever. There was group therapy that I walked out on when nobody in the group could tell me when the grieving would stop.”
Jones captures the pain and loss of Zane’s slow death with loving poignance and a macabre humor that Zane would have appreciated. The book, part reverie on a relationship and part portrait of the artist as a maturing man, segues seamlessly from dance making to gay baths, from family scenes to exacting descriptions of a how Zane and Jones, and now just Jones, choreograph dances. (Jones’ innovative structuralism transfers from dance to writing, although some of the credit for Last Night goes to free-lance writer Peggy Gillespie, who helped Jones structure the autobiography as an oral history from taped interviews.)
cfri>Last Night takes a warm but unsentimental journey through Jones and Zane’s partnership. Jones—an erstwhile disciple of the performance pioneer Yvonne Rainer, who preached “no to theater, no to spectacle”—creates his own manifesto in his memoir, one that says no to nostalgia, no to sentimentality, and no to selective memories. Jones writes:
ear. Fear that we were not going to make it. That our work would go unnoticed. That we would fail each other. Arnie was afraid that I would at the first opportunity leave him for someone who could give me more, someone who was taller, stronger, more beautiful. I was afraid that I would not keep up with his drive, his discipline, that I would hurt him irreparably. I was afraid that I would be revealed as empty, having no story to tell, nothing new to add….
Imet Zane and Jones in 1982, when I was a student at the Harvard Summer Dance Center and doing more writing than dancing. Once I made clear that I wanted to write a profile of the two of them for the Harvard Summer Times, Zane was a most helpful subject, setting up meetings, demonstrations, and attending performances with me. I got to know his eccentric movement style because of his dogged availability. But like most members of the press, I really wanted to meet Bill T., the elusive prima donna of their partnership, the dancerly beauty who was getting all kinds of commissions and honors and the lion’s share of the publicity. Zane seemed disappointed that even I was obsessed with Jones after he had done all the yeomanlike work of a public relations flak.
Sitting on the lawn in front of Memorial Hall, Zane suggested I write just about him, since Jones was the focal point of most previous articles. I left our meeting feeling strange, even embarrassed, as if I had witnessed the pure vulnerability of the packhorse who lives and makes art with the peacock. That image of Zane is borne out by Jones’ fairly unflinching memory of their relationship, and the demons they endured but usually kept at bay. Zane was so much the backbone of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company that it completely unraveled when he became ill. By the time he died in 1988, the troupe was nearly bankrupt and owed back taxes. Jones had to sell Keith Haring’s sets from a signature work to keep the company afloat.
Yet I got my wish—I did finally meet Jones that summer. He answered the door of his and Zane’s Cambridge apartment wearing only sweatshorts. He was every bit as friendly and aloof as his dancing can be, as if he was inviting me to come in but not opening the door enough so that I really could. I left knowing far less about Jones than about Zane.
Jones, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid-’80s, has managed to keep Zane’s artistic vision alive. He has conducted workshops across the country for people with life-threatening illnesses, helping them make simple, gestural dances expressing their angst, their hope, and their pain. His own multimedia dance, Still/Here, incorporates their movements and is currently touring the U.S. The piece has garnered an enormous amount of attention, some of it on the heels of a New Yorker article by dance critic Arlene Croce. Croce lambasted the Brooklyn Academy of Music production (which she refused to attend) as “victim art.” “The movement for Still/Here would spring directly from a very specific experience and set of concerns…I documented in the survival workshop,” Jones writes in Last Night. “The dancers would reveal themselves as they revealed the movements. They would not impersonate the sick and dying, but the many variations of the struggle I learned through Arnie’s illness and death and the illnesses and deaths of numerous others, through my own experience, and through the experiences of workshop participants. I realize that the resources necessary to cope with life-threatening illnesses are the same as those necessary for truly owning one’s life.”
Jones’ and Zane’s sensibilities were influenced by a handful of unsung heroes of experimental dance, performers who went zig when all of modern dance went zag. Probably the most significant, yet one of the lesser known of these practitioners is Anna Halprin, a 75-year-old artist who has constantly pushed the boundaries of dance. Moving Toward Life: Five Decades of Transformation is a collection of Halprin’s essays, interviews and reflections, most of them previously published in drama reviews and dance/movement periodicals.
Halprin may have been the first modern dancer to leave the proscenium stage and take to the streets of the community. For her, dance became social action—even a form of civil disobedience. She developed a cultlike following in San Francisco’s Bay area by paying little or no heed to what was happening in the modern dance mecca of New York, which she left in 1945. After she developed cancer in the 1970s, she started dancing with other cancer patients and people with AIDS in workshops and performances a decade before Jones created Still/Here.
But the stultifying format and chewy prose of Moving Toward Life cloud the importance of Halprin’s achievements. Edited by her personal assistant and performance artist Rachel Kaplan, Moving Toward Life is a must for any serious dance student, but the general public can and should take a miss. The writing is dense and full of movement-theory jargon: “In those exploratory myths,” Halprin writes, “the purpose was to empower people to create together and to impart the experience of power that comes from cooperating through movement as a collective body and find out what are the collective forms and perhaps even the archetypes.”(14). Such passages—and diagrams charting “deepened life experience” and “expanded art expression”—make the book very easy to put down. Which is too bad, because Halprin’s memoir ought to transport readers in the style of Last Night on Earth.