Known internationally as a visionary man of the theater, Bill T. Jones has built a reputation over the past 38 years for his ability to visualize the human condition through choreography and dance. Having received the National Medal of Arts, a MacArthur Genius Award, a Kennedy Center Honors Award and multiple Tony Awards, to name just a few of his honors, there is little imaginative territory Jones has not attempted.
So was quite a coup for George Mason University to have Jones and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in residence this week, presenting a brilliant world premiere of What Problem?, conceived and directed by Jones, with choreography by Janet Wong and the company.
One reason Jones has always been a favorite of the arts world is that he successfully blends intellectual thought with grace, humor and the rigors of lithe and muscular dance. In What Problem?, he begins with W.E.B. DuBois’s famous concern for what he felt was the central problem of the 20th century, namely “the problem of the color-line…the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men.” For Jones, this central problem morphs into many problems, centering around “sexual politics, gender identity, class struggle, and…immigration.”
The first third of What Problem? consists of Jones walking alone on a bare stage, stopping, starting, speaking broken fragments of sentences, phrases where the words make no literal sense, where only the rough outline of meaning comes through. The impression is of a man unmoored.
After introducing his vision of human brokenness, Jones launches into a second phase of the work, in which he remembers reading Moby Dick at age 15 or 16. Jones continues to walk the stage, remembering the ship, the water, the schools of whales and the mothers nursing their young.
Slowly, his company joins him in groups of two and three, making the sound of gulls and waves. Jones’ narrative continues, about life at sea and how frightening it is to swim too far from the mother ship. This section concludes with the members of the company revealing facts — many of them brutal — about themselves or their families.
The third section opens out into the creation of a larger community, one that incorporates more than 30 people from Northern Virginia that were recruited to join the production. They meld into the dance company, sharing their emotions with the dancers, sometimes letting their passions overwhelm their reason, as when they hurl rocks at their neighbors. At the end of this section, each member onstage echoes the dancers’ offerings about their lives, repeating, “I know what it’s like to….” Some of the community members’ visions of their lives are positive, others negative.
There are many moving parts in What Problem? The reason it is so powerful is that they all work smoothly together, integrated seamlessly by Jones and the handful of artists on whom he depends. The most obvious of those artists is Nick Hallett, composer and music director, who wrote a varied, imaginative original score to accompany text excerpts of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech and Herman Melville’s “The Hymn” from Moby Dick.
The Mason University Singers, a large choir conducted by Stan Engebretson, provides beautifully calibrated voices to accompany that score. Robert Wierzel creates a continually shifting light-scape, using spotlights from the ceiling for Jones and five vertical panels of small spots on both sides of the stage.
Those banks of spotlights are the only elements that adorn the blank stage, with the exception of two chairs and music stands at the back of the stage for Jones’ occasional use. Liz Prince dresses the dancers in various kinds of modern dance attire – crop tops, T-shirts, and tights – in muted colors. Along with Jones, Mark Hairston is credited with organizing the texts by King and Melville.
By the time the non-dancers add their 30-plus members to the 11 dancers (Jones and his company) already on stage, the production could look overwhelmed by its own content. But Jones and Wong hold mayhem at bay, keeping the new community walking at an even pace. In his program notes, Jones compares the ideas that collide in his mind to “tectonic plates” that grind and reform to create “land formations, volcanic eruptions,” that rearrange whole continents.
Hopefully, those ideas will keep colliding for a long time to come and will continue to inspire individuals to create communities in many places.
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company performed the world premiere of What Problem? on February 1, 2020, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, Concert Hall, Fairfax Campus. For information about future shows at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, go online.
Vinson Fraley, Jr.
Marie Lloyd Paspe
Bjorn Amelan, Creative Director
Holland Andrews, Musician
Sam Crawford, Sound Design
Hprizm, aka High Priest, Music Producer
Lindsay Kipnis, Stage Manager