I'IHIUI'II DILL l JUJVEO
Radical dance innovator Bill T Jones is no stranger to controversy. Still/Here, a show that deals with death and loss, has been called ‘victim-art’ by some and profoundly moving by others. Ellie Carr considers the arguments and looks forward to a perfomance that promises to be a highlight of this year’s Edinburgh Festival.
ight months ago. hotshot US choreographer Bill T Jones was up against the wall. His assailant? Make-or-break New York dance critic Arlene Croce. And the bee she had buzzing angrily in her bonnet that day — his new dance piece. Still/Here. The piece — created in the wake of Jones’s loss of long-time lover/dance-partner Arnie Zane to AIDS — is about death. In typically direct Jones fashion it uses video-clips of real people with terminal illnesses to make its point. When Croce heard about Still/Here she saw red. She refused point blank to go and see the piece -— then much to everyone’s amazement wrote about it anyway. A vitriolic 3000 word letter- bomb of an article for the New Yorker. in which Jones emerges as chief perpetrator of a modern-day crime she describes as ‘victim art’.
‘I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about.’ wrote Croce. ‘By working dying people into his act. Jones is putting himself beyond the reaches ofcriticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable — the most extreme case among the distressineg many now presenting themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs.‘
‘In the same breath. Croce attacked Steven Speilberg’s Schindler is List. gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. and gutsy. earthy German choreographer Pina Bausch. ‘1 never thought I’d see this day.’ she told BBC2 Late Show cameras in the following months. — ‘that artists have become philistines. They g don’t believe art is enough. They want to hit you in the face with what their condition is. / And their encouragement and support comes from people who also don’t need or
12 The List 18-24 Aug -, ,
understand what art is.’
‘Tough words. Not only had Croce attacked a work she’d never seen — she also appeared to be using that work as a springboard to condemn all politically driven art and artists. Back in the US. this wildly polemic stance sparked off a debate that raged across the pages of the media for months. Frank Rich. Editor of the New York Times. spoke out candidly in defence of Bill T Jones; conservative an critic Hilton Cramer threw his lot in with Croce — and eventually the whole thing came full-circle back to the New Yorker where a dozen letters (six from each camp) from key members of the arts community were published in an attempt to deliver the final word.
‘Still the arguments raged on. Croce had wielded her power as a critic like a weapon of war — and her call to arms had i- ‘ been heard loud and clear. \ But while the chattering c l a s s e s w e r e
busy beating each other up over the relative merits of Arlene Croce versus Bill T Jones. something far more revolutionary was happening elsewhere. People were actually going to see the piece. In their hundreds. And when the reviews came back they were glowing. Nobody felt they had been emotionally blackmailed into liking the performance. And nobody felt they had witnessed what Croce and her conservative cheerleaders had been so busy lambasting as ‘victim art’.
‘The controversy is really about something that never happened.’ explains long-time Bill T Jones company member Arthur Aviles. "The only way that those people who are ‘dying‘ are represented is on video-tape. There are dancers on stage and we’re strong and jumping and doing very energetic things. That’s important to know. The people on stage are dancers who are not really sick... One of the things Bill is dealing with is what do we do with our lives now. while we’re here‘? What’s the urgency? I can feel a little bit of urgency in my life now.‘ says Aviles. who’s leaving Jones next year to set up his own company. ‘This dance piece has made me realise that if you want to do something. you have to do it now . . . by the end
of Still/Here you opt for life!’
‘So what happened to Croce’s victims? ‘The cast members of Still/Here — the sick people whom Jones has signed up . . . ’ lt’s emotive rhetoric — but just not very accurate. There are no dying people flailing round the floor as her diatribe implies. No pitiful figures to tug at your