From its earliest days as an American art form, modern dance has historically found itself a kind of willing hostage on university campuses across the country. Bill T. Jones himself began his career in just such a situation at SUNY Binghamton where he studied Afro-Caribbean dance with Percival Borde. While at Binghamton Jones and Arnie Zane founded the American Dance Asylum (1973) and, after moving to New York, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Company in 1982. For many, the context has proved a fruitful one. In 1991 Jones brought his sprawling choreography for Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land to UCLA. It used Jones’ company and forty dancers and guests as part of the literary, dance pageant. Fast forward to 2012 and last weekend’s CSULB Dance Department concert at the Carpenter Center, where an all student cast put on a spectacular restaging of Jones’ Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger (2003) along with its companion work, Mercy 10 x 8 On A Circle.
Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger is based on Flannery O’Connor’s racially charged short story, The Artificial Nigger (1948). It is a crushing narrative of unapologetic provincialism and racial division. The abusive Mr. Head and his young grandson, Nelson travel by train to Atlanta in an effort teach the young Nelson about the ways of city life. In order to bolster his own self-image and torment Nelson, Mr. Head abandons the grandson. Their mutual terror is finally resolved as they beat a hasty retreat for the evening train out of town. The aptly abridged story is read from the stage. Originally, the two reading roles were performed by Mr. Jones and his sister.
What is striking from the beginning is how completely delivered the narrative is even with much of the text missing. The dancing at times physically mimics the story line—there are scenes of the bustle of city street life, an approximation of a rail car, a scene with a novelty fortune telling scale designed with human bodies, a reenactment of a scene in which Nelson is plunged, head first, into a city sewer opening— but mostly the complex dancing is independent and only comments on the action obliquely. Five pairs of dancers end up covering the roles of Mr. Head and Nelson as the story progresses. Joey Navarrete and Belinda Lutes were terrific as the first couple covering the roles of Mr. Head and Nelson. The roles on stage are not always gender or race specific. Jones has responded to the authentic, isolating qualities of white and black characters (as well as men and women) in O’Connor’s story by making the physical identities of those who portray them irrelevant.
Both works are rich with visual layering. Liz Prince’s costumes and Bjorn Amelan’s designs offer a dusty, middle class, period look at Atlanta. The reading roles, performed from scripts by Alex Duremdes and Jessica Garcia, were excellent. Ms. Garcia especially delivered a believable southern cant which made charming that which was often grave. The music, a small ensemble of piano and strings, composed by Daniel Bernard Roumain was haunting and had touches of music designed for silent film. The writing led without incongruity to the dark set of Beethoven piano variations (C minor, performed by Glen Gould) for Mercy 10 x 8 On A Circle.
The dark corners of O’Connor’s short story finally lead to a repentant Mr. Head. He acknowledges his flawed, backwardness but actual change is not in the cards. As the piece closes that mercy sought by Mr. Head becomes the first pronouncements of the theme from the piano variations. It’s as if Jones is saying, now we are going to think about what we’ve seen and heard. No letting go of it just yet. Visually we get a heavenly stream of falling paper petals falling across a hazy, circular projection. Some of the same movement returns but this is no longer a narrative tale. It resembles more, a religious reckoning. The melding of the two worlds is masterful.
Towards the end of Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger, Jones places in front of us a stark image. A chair from the set hangs high in the middle of the projection that has alternately been the moon, the sun, a train headlamp and a sewer hole. O’Connor often acknowledged the harshness of her own stories. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism”, she said. It was also clear that Jones was not afraid to trade on some of those harsh realities himself.
(Both the production quality and dancing in this restaging were exceptional. Restaging the works for this performance were Leah Cox, Shayla-Vie Jenkins and Stuart Singer with assistance from CSULB faculty member, Keith Johnson. The restaging was in conjunction with Bill T. Jones and New York Live Arts. The lighting design was by Robert Wierzel. The photographs appearing with this review were taken by Gregory R. R. Crosby. The images are protected under copyright by Bill. T. Jones. This performance took place at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach on November 17, 2012.)