On Stage: Bill T, Jones's dance for every body | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: Bill T, Jones's dance for every body 

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"He Wants Every Body," the audition notices read. "Thirty-nine people of all sizes, shapes and colors are needed. Dance experience preferred but not required. . . . Nudity, as a poetic statement of the body, will be used in this piece."

The "piece" is Bill T. Jones's dance/theater extravaganza Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land, which local dancers are being recruited for. Nearly a year and a half after its premiere in Minneapolis it's coming to Chicago as part of the DejAvant Series sponsored by Performing Arts Chicago, formerly Chamber Music Chicago.

Despite the notices, the crowd at Columbia College's Dance Center on this midwinter Saturday afternoon is only slightly more heterogeneous than the usual dance class. There are plenty of people of color (though under the dirty wash of the fluorescent lights everyone looks some shade of gray), a few who might qualify as fat, several who appear to be middle-aged but only one--a woman--who might be a grandparent. Mostly there's just lots of them: more than a hundred, many in leotards and tights but a few in sweats or jeans and sneakers. The usual metaphors of abundance come to mind: it's a forest, a field, a sea of dancers, chattering, giggling, or glumly silent, vigorously warming up or stretching or doodling with their bodies. Some men are jumping in place as high as they can. Some are clearly trained dancers, others are clearly not. The scuttlebutt is that "interesting movers" are desired: who will qualify?

A slight woman with long brown hair and a surprisingly stentorian voice attempts to bring order to chaos: she is Valerie Williams, and she's the advance scout in charge of choosing and rehearsing the local performers. Williams starts by assuring everyone that the rehearsal process itself is meant to be satisfying; that process, she implies, begins here, with the audition.

The Promised Land examines issues of faith, and Williams calls the first movement combination the dancers will attempt the "saint shapes": a series of 13 poses reminiscent of holy figures in medieval paintings. One is called "the stained-glass window"; in another the left palm goes to the right cheek, while the right hand covers the privates. In number eight, she says, "you're looking over the edge of the world," arms raised but curved downward like beating wings, heads and gazes down. A step forward with one hand raised, palm out, is not "stop," she says, but "hark." When 200 arms scoop the air joyfully and everyone looks up, in the "hallelujah" pose, it's an impressive spectacle.

Williams initially positions herself in the middle of the stage, with the dancers surrounding her. She's making a brave attempt to see everyone, but it can't be easy. People calling out questions--dancers often ask for the minutest details of what's required of them--are apt to be answered first with "Who said that?" as Williams peers through the crowd. Others nab her when she's nearby. "Is there a lean on that pose?" someone queries.

"Maybe," Williams responds. "If you need to lean, lean." She explains: "In the best spirit of modern dance, you as an individual make this piece. The community is strong only because the individual is strong."

After everyone has learned the saint shapes and gone through them fast, maybe ten times in quick succession, Williams teaches a more difficult combination. "One of the geniuses of this dance," she says, "is that some sequences are easy even for nondancers and some are technically demanding. The only thing really needed is a desire to do this piece.

"By the way, does everyone know that nudity is required?" It seems as good a time as any to ask.

Practicing the sequence at random, the dancers look like fish leaping out of a human pond. Later the herd crosses to one side of the stage for the leaps, buffeting Williams as they pass her. "You make them up," she says. She wants the good leapers in front: "If you see someone around you with a good split leap, tell them." Later Williams asks, "Who has an arabesque?" A tall man points to another dancer standing several feet away from him and says in a loud, accusatory voice: "You do!"

Then it's back to the saint shapes. "You have five minutes to create a sequence of 13 parts based on these shapes. You can base them on things in your life, too." A tall order for five minutes (though it ends up being more). Nevertheless these made-up sequences look terrific: "Wasn't that a treat to look at?" Williams asks the watching dancers after one group finishes.

After two hours, it's time for the cut. Williams has said she'll divide the auditioners into small groups, "small groups" being a euphemism for the chosen and the damned.

More than 40 are chosen, among them an exotic guy with heavily shaded lids, a woman with white blond hair, a schlumpy man in a crewcut, several rawboned male monsters, two young female peanuts with beautiful technique, two look-alike women Williams calls "the twins," a short demonic person with blond goatee and mustache, an enthusiastic woman nearly as wide as she is tall, the grandmother, a man who looks like a college professor with a graying ponytail and wire rims, a man in tropical shirt and Rastafarian hair.

They're called to center stage, after the others have been thanked for coming, and informed that they'll rehearse every evening Monday through Friday for two weeks. A small stipend is available for the 40 hours of rehearsal, but the presenting organization hopes they'll waive it. This is a big venture for them and the window of profit is very, very small.

That's probably OK with most of the dancers: it's often said that they're not in it for the money. Unfortunately many who showed up today won't be in it for the glory, either.

Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land will be performed at 7:30 PM Wednesday, March 11, Friday, March 13, and Saturday, March 14 at the Civic Theatre, 20 N. Wacker. Tickets are $15 - $25, and can be had by calling 242-6237.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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