Winging It

bill t. jones/arnie zane dance company @ the dance center of columbia college, 1 october 2011.

When I watch recreations and restagings of Bill T. Jones’s dances with Arnie Zane from the late 1970s and early 80s, I think of wingspan. I think of wingspan both in its literal and metaphorical senses. Literally, dancers with arms outstretched, fingertip to fingertip, dipping down at the shoulder, reaching out the triceps, straightening the elbow, extending the forearm, uncurling the knuckles, looking down at a fingertip with a hawk’s eye. Metaphorically, dancers reaching out to the horizon while also measuring the outer limits of their own bodies, testing the air, the self, the other, a lover, the world.

Wingspan: the effort to stretch effortlessly, the unattainable desire to take flight, the pleasure of feeling one’s body in motion, of touching another, of being on one’s own again; the playfulness of the dream of the bird’s eye view, seen from up above or out beyond yet also profoundly within corporeal limits—made all the more intense by the dialectic between the body and its transcendence. All this glimpsed, felt, believed, meditated upon, acted out, momentarily, in sequence, all actual and imagined at the same time.

Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane.

There is a great athleticism in these dances, but it’s so different from, say, Pilobulus, which has an air of Cirque du Soleil show-biz acrobatics to it. No, the Jones/Zane Company is more intellectual about its athleticism, more contemplative, more reflective. There is always an irony at work in the gestural language and performance, a sense that the dancers are looking at each other with intensity, seeing themselves through the other’s eyes while also being firmly within their own perspective. It’s a sly display of virtuosity at work in these performances, which are as amazing to see both in grainy archival footage and in their digitally-filmed recreations. We witness the demonstration of brilliance delivered almost casually, presented with an air of detached self-amazement, appreciation, pleasure even when there is pain to be measured, expressed, and understood. To be alive to experience these historic dances is to watch dancers winging it with such careful awareness as to seem utterly composed, yet free, flying off into the sunset and just coming into view in the same lifespan.

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