Dressed in black, Bill T. Jones strolled and swayed on the quiet stage of the Eisenhower Auditorium before artists and members of the Center County community joined him in promoting a new perspective on belonging, isolation and political power.
As part of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State’s Fierce Urgency Festival, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed their presentation “What Problem?” Friday night.
Artistic Director and Choreographer Bill T. Jones »[explored] the tension between belonging to a community and feeling isolated” in times of political conflict, according to the CPA website.
The theme for the 2022 festival is “Hope-Resist-Heal,” the website said.
“Even Blackness has its sparkle,” Jones said during the performance.
Using excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech while referencing Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” Jones said he was attempting to create an individual interpretive piece.
Jones said his presentations differed from the stereotypical “dance culture” because he wanted to create “a bodily inquiry into artistic creation” in Time.
Throughout the 90-minute performance, company performers dressed in various shades of red, white, blue and black danced across the stage, creating scenes to follow Jones’ narration.
Jones repeatedly asked if the audience remembered the struggles Pip faced from “Moby-Dick”.
“I don’t remember,” Jones said. “You don’t remember. They don’t remember. We don’t remember.
Four singers sat in front of the stage all in red, intermingling the dancers with raps, anthems and other songs.
“How does it feel to be a problem?” said a singer. “How did you feel about being a problem?” Do you remember the… loneliness?
During the performance, Jones discussed the comforts of a human and his addiction to man-made objects, referencing the “Moby-Dick” characters wanting to stay on the ship.
Towards the end of the show, 27 community members joined Jones and the company’s artists on stage.
“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” Jones said on the show.
The performers – of all shapes, sizes, genders, races and ages – danced together.
At the end, the performers lined up on both sides of the stage and placed two microphones in the middle.
Each person on stage approached the microphones to say a statement following the phrase “I know”.
“I know what it feels like to put my finger down my throat,” said one artist.
“I know what it’s like to feel emptiness instead of pain,” said another.
“I know my darkness makes you see me as a threat,” another artist said.
“I know my parents did their best,” said another.
“I know that joy and happiness are fleeting,” said another.
When the performers finished, Jones said they were “saying their peace”.
“What problem?” is allegedly based on WEB Du Bois’ statement which read “the color line problem”, according to CPA.
Jones explained that the performance is adapted from a larger one of his works known as “Deep Blue Sea”, Jones said.
At the end of the performance, the actors held a talkback for questions.
During the conversation, Jones said he had a “callus on [his] heart” seeing the state of society when he created “Deep Blue Sea”.
For some involved community members like Charles Dumas, their involvement in the presentation helped reveal a new perspective.
“Our community is damaged,” Dumas said. “This experience helps us learn from each other.”
Audience member Ted Rosenblum said he has no plans to come to the show until his friend gives him a ticket, which he is “beyond grateful”.
After the performance, Rosenblum said the presentation was “a fiery piece of political art that isn’t afraid to be ambiguous, abstract and contradictory.”
After an audience member expressed confusion towards certain aspects of the performance, Jones said the piece’s art was meant to be “abstract”.
“The storytelling is false consolation,” Jones said during the chat. “Give yourself permission to create your own meaning.”
The performers agreed with Jones that abstract work allows each individual to develop the meaning they need.
“[Jones] always talks about trying to bring order to chaos,” said performer Shane Larson. “Abstraction is a way to try to find it.”
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