At Festival of the Arts Boca last night, nine impossibly elastic dancers spent a couple of hours swaying, gliding, sliding, shuffling, hopping, kicking, piggybacking, rolling, writhing, and contorting themselves into yogic positions on the Mizner Park Amphitheater stage. What all of that supreme athleticism actually said is up to interpretation.
The members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, one of the most important modern dance companies of the past century, performed two compositions choreographed by Jones—2013’s “Story/,” and 1989’s iconic “D-Man in the Waters”—for a crowd that was appreciative but underattended. Ironically for a piece titled “Story/,” narrative cohesion proved elusive, leaving us to grasp for stray symbols: a portentous apple here, a body tumbling across the stage there, a plume of smoke following its movements as other dancers acted as human fans, blowing away the fumes. One minute, the dancers resembled fairies frolicking in a springtime dew; at another point, a man seemed to die in another’s arms.
The piece’s most compelling portions isolated two dancers from the troupe and played with dialectical opposites, exploring the tensions between love and hate, pain and pleasure, and battle and companionship within short clutches of movement. Set to the live string music of Franz Schubert, the experience was aesthetically stunning yet emotionally ambivalent.
Following the intermission, “D-Man in the Waters” proved to be a more uplifting experience set to an infectious score—Mendelssohn’s “Octet for Strings in E-flat major,” performed by two string quartets. As in the first piece, the dancers resembled elements of nature personified. Dressed in army camouflage, they seemed to pantomime military protocol, at first creating a sense of battlefield solidarity and then moving as if propelled by invisible currents.
If the piece isn’t about war, you could have fooled me; reviews have suggested “D-Man in the Waters” is actually about the AIDS epidemic, which took the life of Jones’ partner, Arnie Zane, the year before its premiere. At any rate, the movements were as delicate and fragile as life itself, whether it’s suddenly removed by an IED or a grim prognosis. It ended with a sense of communal uplift—of the soul, at least, surviving such horror.
Ultimately, ascribing meaning to an experience like last night’s is like trying to define a piece of abstract art or a jazz composition. Such criticism only places limits on exactly what makes the works so special. To “understand” modern dance like this, you really just had to be there.