Bill T. Jones is a truthteller for our times

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NORTH ADAMS — When the dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones was commissioned by Mass MoCA and Jacob's Pillow to create a performance work in response to composer-artist Nick Cave's massive site-specific installation "Until," the task seemed right in his wheelhouse. Indeed, "site" and "task" have been artistic lodestars for Jones's generation of dancemakers.

Today museums are de rigueur sites for dance; Jones's approach to this particular task was, sublimely, less an answer than a series of questions. In the creation of "Until," Cave asked himself "is there racism in heaven?" Meanwhile the title of Jones's new work, "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: A Call and Response," slyly conjures the metaphoric and geographic opposite of a "heaven." Among the questions Jones asks are those that bounce right back to Cave: "Will art save us, Nick?" and, more poignantly, "Will art save me?"

Because of the audience's seating arrangement, Jones was unable to meander among "Until"s magical metallic forest—16,000 shimmering spheres descending from the ceiling — so a good deal of his performance took place under Cave's "heaven," the bottom of which is a cloud made of deconstructed chandeliers. Jones's hour-long performance at times seemed like a nightmarish marathon in which the road keeps circling back to the same place.

If the entrance to "Until" obliquely brings to mind Dorothy's pathway to Oz, Jones's journey is paved with strips of black marley flooring, arteries that extend out from the heart-center of the cloud, into a colorful net-cave where Jones disappears from our view before being spit back out on the other side, and back onto another panel of marley — which leads him back to the cloud.

Fractured bits of Cave's overgrown heaven-garden spill out into the audience's view from below; the contrast of the soft warmth of the chandeliers' light with the garishly-hued ceramic birds, golden pigs — and the abhorrent black "lawn jockey" statues that Cave has provocatively tucked up there—creates an eerily beautiful then uneasy atmosphere, as when the sky careens from blue to steel gray. (And a closer look at some of those lovely forest spheres unveils shocking cutouts of guns and bullets.) Ignore the storm at your own peril — whether you're in Kansas or Missouri.

The piece, a co-presentation with Jacob's Pillow, began with Jones traversing his cyclic trail with a now agitated, now distracted air, all the while muttering to himself (but miked so we could hear) what might have been a disjointed rant but upon careful listening turned out to be Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, spoken backwards. If Jones, now 65, didn't perform the kinds of big virtuosic movements of his earlier days, his body is just the same a fascinating glory, strong and eloquent — he will always be a dancer, and a grand storyteller. As in many of his dances, Jones employed large amounts of text in "Between the Devil." After the "Dream" sequence, the majority of the text came from Herman Melville's sprawling "Moby Dick."

Frequently, Jones abstractly mimed Melville's words and imagery, sometimes embodying his characters, particularly Pip, the young black "cabin boy." Jones is a shrewd shapeshifter, whether portraying Pip — first wide-eyed with obsequiousness then wild-eyed with madness — or any number of little topical asides thrown into the not-quite-stream-of-consciousness performance. Now he's a geisha, now Shiva; his late father was conjured when Jones changed out of functional workout garb into his dad's handsome gray suit jacket and pants. Jones the real-life dancer makes a cameo, noodling at a "barre" improvised out of a metal rectangle frame that Jones carried about at various times. The frame itself morphed, becoming a momentary barrier between himself and the audience, or, held up lengthwise, a metal detector to pass through, or a portal to an unknown place, whose threshold Jones hesitated at.

Along with the spirits and characters sharing the stage with Jones, the performance was accompanied by snippets of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and "Ain't no Stopping Us Now" (the former written by, Jones reminded us, that other Martin Luther, while the latter he calls "the Negro National Anthem"); original music was composed and performed live by Ted Coffey, while Sam Crawford's sound design conjured tempestuous waves or the keening groans of a big ship.

By the end, Jones answered one question he'd unwittingly asked himself. As he and Cave wrapped up their post-performance chat, Jones said that he realized the explorations he'd begun in "Between the Devil" were probably something he'll want to continue when he begins his next big piece with his full company. Pip has more to say, it seems, and we'll all be waiting to see and hear how Jones — a truth-teller for our times — weaves the rest of the story.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@hotmail.com.

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