‘The stage should be a place where that word, an ugly, irredeemable epithet, is tested in a particular fire, the fire of unbridled imagination.’
It is impossible to imagine Bill T. Jones having the timidity to embrace the notions of political correctness. He never has before, so why should he start doing so as a part of his company’s 20th anniversary season?
Indeed, there are evenings when his anger over the ways of the world can spill out onto the stage in something approaching diatribe. That’s because for him art is not just some pretty thing out on the edges, but rather at the heart of how society views itself, his art and his politics are intimate bedfellows.
This is evident in the title of his most recent creation, ‘Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger’. It is based on a short story by Flannery O’Connor (1925-64). She is one of the dazzling crop of writers from the American Deep South that includes Faulkner, Capote, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, who have been collectively grouped under the genre name of ‘Southern Gothic’.
O’Connor was a miniaturist who saw God’s angels and devils dancing in battle on the head of a pin. She turned the extremes of her rural Georgia into epiphanies of inexplicable salvation. Throughout her brief writing career, O’Connor was repelled, fascinated and bleakly amused by the fundamentalism that exists on the more bizarre fringes of religion.
The title of O’Connor’s story, ‘The Artificial Nigger’, includes what must be for any black American the single most despicable and offensive word in the language. That Jones has added the explanatory ‘Reading, Mercy…’ to O’Connor’s 1948 story is something of a clue to his intentions.
He approaches O’Connor’s words (read from the stage by a pair of narrators) as if they were a soundscore. It is a peculiar, alien story, brimming with both bigotry and some strange form of grace. The tale tells of an old redneck farmer and his grandson who go on a daytrip to Atlanta where they find themselves so totally out of place that they end up being the true ‘artificial nigger’ of O’Connor’s title; hick misfits, displaced, lost, out of their depth, and yet somehow managing to find salvation through this unwelcome realisation.
Jones’s choreography is not a mimicry of the text, but rather a continually shifting collage revolving around its imagery and its incidents. He casts all ten members of his company, male and female, black and white, as both the grandfather and the child, but doesn’t limit, himself to the literal. This shifting identity of the performers is Jones’s way of letting us know that what he has in mind is much more than simply sitting around a campfire listening to a story being told.
He reinforces this point with a coda, ‘Mercy 10 x 8 on a Circle’, which segues on from the end of the story into a ‘pure’ dance that is set to Beethoven’s variations for piano in C Minor. This elegiac finale recycles some of the same movement material, but in a rich, free-flowing and non-figurative manner.
Both of these segments have been performed independently (and it has yet to be confirmed how they will be seen in Britain), but when they are placed back to back without a break, they support one another in a way that reinforces the deep possibilities of dance as a communicator of emotion and idea.
“Together, Arnie and I formed some mythical beast. We flew. I had the wings, but it was something about the strength in his legs that got us off the ground. This adventure we were having in the art world could fall apart, but we would still be together. We had no reason to be together, no validation from anyone, no children, nothing but his vision, my arms, his legs, my wings, our loving.”
Bill T. Jones, Last Night On Earth