The company that Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane formed in 1982 is still here. Zane died in 1988; Jones went on to become a MacArthur Fellow, a Kennedy Center honoree, a two-time Tony winner, and the artistic director of New York Live Arts. The company has continued on in works like “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land” (1990), “Still/Here” (1994), “Chapel/Chapter” (2006), “Story/Time” (2012), and “Analogy” (2015–2017). And Zane lives on in the company’s name. What’s disappeared from that name is “Dance.” Which makes sense, since from the beginning, dance was just one component of vocal performances that addressed racism and gender politics.
This past weekend, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company came to the Institute of Contemporary Art with “Curriculum II” (2022), an “evening-length” work that draws on the ideas of Cameroonian historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe, Nigerian-born Afrofuturism scholar Louis Chude-Sokei, and Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter in its exploration of what Jones calls “the historical and persistent connection between race and technology and the pursuit of what is human.” The piece has too many ideas crammed into its 65 minutes; they don’t all fit together, and most of them aren’t new. But it’s an engaging mashup.
At the ICA’s Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, some 100 members of the audience were seated onstage, so that sight lines in this theater-in-the-round include fellow patrons, Jones’s way of reminding us that we’re all in this together. A four-sided video screen looms overhead; smaller screens are scattered through the regular theater seats. Some deconstructed skeletons, not all human, repose in front of the theater seats; a pair of nooses hung stage right, evidence perhaps of lynching.
The nine performers, having seated themselves briefly amid the audience, take the stage in darkness, their path lit by the flashlight app in their smartphones. They form a tight circle, facing outward. Marie Lloyd Paspe sings Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and everyone, having spread out, begins to spin, suggesting planets rotating at different speeds, while the big video screen explores the universe, as if to say our only hope is in the stars.
What follows is sensory overload. We hear the verses from Genesis where God gives humankind dominion over the Earth. We hear about “transhuman” and “posthuman” and “more than human” and “primitive people.” Shane Larson tells us, “You need to picture me as Black,” even though he isn’t. The “Slaves and Monsters” section of a cultural report finds Danielle Marshall doing an agitated floor exercise within the confines of one of the stage’s 24 squares; meanwhile we learn about Joice Heth, the Black woman who in 1835 was exhibited by P. T. Barnum as being 161 and George Washington’s former wet nurse. Jada Jenai sings Nina Simone, “Have we lost the human touch?”
It’s easy to lose touch with the dance component, what with the readings from Chude-Sokei and a gloss on Genesis coupled with newsreel footage and performer photos and cosmic images and a leafing-out tree on the big screen. And the performers don’t touch each other very often. They walk along the grid lines of the 24 squares; they pose, run, parade, runway-model, vogue, kick, gyrate, hint at martial arts, push one another out of place, execute mirror duets with a loose-limbed grace. They seem like kids making it up as they go along; you sense they could do more than Jones asks of them. They don’t really break out till Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers’ “Buzzard Lope” kicks in.
The final section has the performers stripping down to jockstraps and thongs and painting themselves in a rainbow of colors. They sing “Dixie,” whereupon Philip Strom cavorts wearing strips of the American flag and little else. Nayaa Opong imitates a robot; in another “Slaves and Monsters” segment, Barrington Hinds portrays Caliban from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” We hear that “the unthinkable is happening daily”; Jones’s “Oh Death” (sung by Marshall) and “Beulah Land” aspire to the promised land. A digital clock similar to the one in “Story/Time” ticks down, then starts forward as Paspe reprises “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” and the stars reappear on the big screen. But the performers’ final pose, as they glare out at us from their tight circle, suggests the real challenge is still here on Earth.
Conceived and directed by Bill T. Jones. Choreography by Jones with Janet Wong and the company. Costumes and installation by Liz Prince. Lighting by Robert Wierzel. Performed by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, March 10-12..
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at [email protected] .