The post-performance discussion of Serenade/The Proposition nervously circled around the question of how one can (and even whether one should) make dance about history. This piece, commissioned by the Joyce for its 25th anniversary (coincidentally also the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s 25th anniversary) works as a kind of sketchbook for the more extravagant sister piece, Fondly Do We Hope, Fervently Do We Pray, commissioned by the Ravinia Festival for the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, which premiered in September. In receiving the Ravinia commission three years ago, Jones decided to invest all of the company’s present energies on the topic, and assigned reading and documentaries not only to himself and his Artistic Director, but also to his dancers and composers. Their in-studio discussions about Lincoln, the Civil War, history, and contemporary race relations were recorded and sampled for inclusion in Serenade’s soundtrack.
Jones is a heady choreographer, whose work has always been informed—if not fully driven—by his potent intellect. It’s unsurprising that an audience might find this kind of work destabilizing; in Serenade, for example, the dancers share the stage with vocalist Lisa Komara and narrator Jamyl Dobson. It is rare for a reviewer to tip her cards, but I will divulge this key fact: the press kit for Serenade/The Proposition included a complete script of the piece’s textual soundtrack—six pages of small-print. The work is driven by text—a text the Company considers so vital that they have not only used it to generate movement, not only invited an actor to share the stage as he delivers it, but have offered it as a kind of libretto for any journalist hoping to make sense of the piece.
And one might want help making sense of the piece, for, in true Bill T. fashion, it is a highly post-modern work. If we cling too tightly to any one sentence or silhouette, our desire for linear narration will be frustrated; instead we must balance attention and intuition, slipping facilely from suggestion to suggestion as the text and movement build a proposition from broken parts. While three dancers scramble (with the pointed buffoonery of political cartoons) and freeze into tableaus (with the neoclassical gravitas appropriate to the backside of the dollar bill), Dobson narrates, with the poise and measure likely learned from Jones’s own voice, “It is something. It is something of a feat. It is something of a feat to ride two horses. It is something of a feat to ride two horses going the same way. It is something of a feat to ride two horses going the same way and at the same pace. . . but still a greater feat when they are going in opposite directions. With malice. With malice toward none. . .”
Dance about history is actually less outrageous than it sounds. Good art, like history, offers a lot of data, but it is all colored by performative subjectivity. Movement on one dancer will be different on another dancer, in the way that one soldier’s recollection of a battle will be different than another’s. In one section of Serenade, two dancers run out from stage right and begin an across-the-floor section of choreography. As they reach halfway to the stage’s midpoint, another two dancers run out, tag them, and pick up the phrase where the first two dancers have now left it, running off stage right. The new pair continues the phrase, moving now to the stage’s center, when a third pair runs out, tags them, and takes over the movement, recapitulating the last arabesque or turn in their own way. This pattern repeats until finding resolution with all dancers back onstage.
This kind of programmatic choreography, creating movement by strategy as much as by expression, allows Jones to address history’s great gray area; rather than making an ideological argument (he is often referred to as a political artist), he makes a thoughtful proposition. Thus, the audience is required to do as much interpretive work as the artists; there is no contention to passively absorb, or against which to react. Just as the dancers’ deconstructed period clothing, assembled from bits and pieces of other shows’ costumes, missing sleeves, and “finished” in places with belts of red tape (a pun not unintended, knowing Jones) convey by inference rather than statement. The constantly made and unmade movement (two groups of dancers entering the stage from two sides, lining up in the center, and retrograding back) tests the text’s various suggestions: “It couldbe said that this history is a person born in 1952.” “It could be said that this history is somebody born in 1981, standing on a beach. . .” “It couldbe said that this history is a person, a woman.” All of this could be said, and in fact it is, but this quality of the serenade (which pleases and maybe, through repetition, even lulls us into a less conscious space) and the proposition (which suggests without committing) leaves open the possibility for additional alternatives. If this piece is even about the “four-score” bearded President, it reveals the triteness of that biopic question “who was Abraham Lincoln?” For no one is anyone in a vacuum, free from the vying voices of a community.