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whitelight

Bill T. Jones

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This is definitely something of a rant, and something that irritates me to no end. I find it hard to believe that Bill T Jones's work is still considered "victim art," and yet, from the recent DanceView Times I see

I’m not an expert on Jones’s “victim art,” but I have noticed that it is popular among upper-middle-class white audiences.

I agree that his popularity with upper-middle-class white audiences is problematic, but I want to address the first part of the statement. Especially since every time I have seen this term used, the writer distances him or herself as much as possible with familiarity with the work itself, totally evading justification of the statement! The above is a great example, and a better one if Croce's infamous review of Still/Here-- a performance she did not even attend. I enjoy Croce almost as much as most people who frequent these boards, but a critic cannot be descriptive, interpretive, or evaluative without seeing the work, period.

As far as I can tell (I am sure someone can correct me if I am wrong), she gave Jones the "victim art" label, and I must reiterate that it perplexes me. To me, the term implies that the artist is glorifying victim status, and most importantly, demanding pity from the audience. I have only seen three live Bill T Jones performances, and all in the past year, but I can attest from these experiences that "victim art" is a terrible description of his work. I found the brief statement in the NYTimes to be much more descriptive:

As usual, Mr. Jones reaches, or overreaches, trying to say something about almost everything; he even inserted a lament about torture. As usual, there is such virtuosity and poetry and flair on hand that he achieves an awful lot.

His dances do try to incorporate everything, it seems, through a kind of postmodern patchwork of specifics. He does tackle charged issues about injustice, but never have I felt that I should "feel sorry for him" for being black, gay, or HIV positive. Furthermore, while his style is unmistakable, his work is not about himself-- he always moves outside of himself, using the experiences of his mulitcultural company, to try to map out the larger reality of whatever broad subjects he is tackling. "Overreaching" is a sound criticism, but I also agree that in the process, "he achieves an awful lot."

So, I don't really know any ballet enthusiasts who enjoy Jones, but I am interested in whatever opinions are posted in response. I admit that I have become completely captivated by him. I find his work incredibly engaging, though often uncomfortable (in many ways-- the first piece I saw had a garage metal band playing incredibly loudly, and the classical music/ballet fan next to me at Fall for Dance told me he thought Jones was way too repetive). It just bothers me so much that writers still flippantly dismiss his work and essentially accuse him of being a cheap pity-seeker. Far less talented artists receive higher praise.

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Thanks, whitelight, for that marvellous post. I have to admit that I've not seen Jones. Nor do I have any thoughts on his work. But I was interested by the impression you give of an artist seriously interested in social issues and the ways that dance might address and engage them.

These are concerns missing from virtually all the contemporary ballet choreography I've seen. And perhaps that's something ballet should think about.

I hope you'll get lots of responses.

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I saw Jones's 'Open Places' at the old Art on the Beach series in 1984. This was on one of the piers that have been replaced by Battery Park City and Hudson Park by now. I believe this was well before he was HIV + or had been diagnosed as such. It was a startlingly glorious performance, one of the most superb I've ever seen, and danced across a huge expanse outdoors, with wooden sets set at odd angles and then some were danced in or around and then left behind. This was the only case I've seen in which the elements added an incredible magic. It was always just about to rain, but never did. Male and female dancers would stand for long moments looking across to New Jersey as the sun finally set. Jones came out afterwards and said something about how we thought we weren't going to make it, but we did. I recall that Molissa Fenley was there.

The 'victim art' article by Croce in the New Yorker was in 1995 or 1996, I believe. There was all sorts of controversy, including silly 'in letters' such as Susan Sontag writing in to make the final pronouncement on the debate (she hoped), making sure to include that she knew very well that Joyce Carol Oates had said the most preposterous things of anybody, but also that Croce was right in some sense, and not in some other (believe me, it doesn't matter that much.) Deborah Jowitt wrote an excellent piece in the period that I thought said it best. There was a kind of 'coolness' she identified as part of what Croce demanded. Jowitt said something like 'I like this coolness too, but I can live without having it all the time.' I am not sure I read a single reference to the Croce article which did not include the phrase 'magisterial critic.' (this is all right and may well be true, but people don't have to all use the same term of praise, and it began to sound as though 'haughty' may have been trying to be avoided as part of what was being included in 'magisterial.') I thought what Jowitt said was more balanced, but she did indicate that she knew what Croce objected to.

Jones brought some of this on himself. Either in the Croce article or some other piece in the debate at the time, he had gone after a performance and exposed himself in front of a child. The furious father, who I believe was a friend of Jones, asked him why he did it, and Jones said something about things being taboo or overcoming taboos or some such demented, however arty nonsense.

It could be that Croce already sensed that there was something in Jones's vision at that time that made writing a polemic more important than reviewing the individual work in her own way, i.e., she could have ignored the whole idea of 'victim art' and reviewed 'Still/Here' without reference to that, of course. But she obviously thought there was something Jones was trying to present that would have meant that, in the case of reviewing it as if it were not promoting this, she would have been reviewing something other than what the Jones work intended to be--and she obviously was refusing something of his vision. I never saw anything but 'Open Places,' which didn't have a trace of 'victim art' about it, but this sort of thing, once started and inflaming people, would naturally divide people into camps through the years.

If what she said is correct, I would not be interested in it either, although I'd have to see it to know. It does seem logical that she could have also seen the work and then talked about it without actually reviewing it, otherwise it is as though she was basing it on previous work, things she knew about Jones in that period, etc., and that she could have still written her polemic, if necessary, quite as well having seen it as not--which, to my mind, makes the polemic a little too showy.

Yes, I think that's what bothers me most about Croce's piece: In fact, till you wrote this I had not been aware that she hadn't seen 'Still/Here.' I don't see how, even if she is ultimately sound in her judgment about Jones's 'victim art', that she really is convincing if she didn't see the work around which all the controversy was swirling. In other words, if she didn't see it, there was something she didn't know, even if in seeing it nothing new was illuminated that would change her theory. Yeah, I don't buy that part either.

*Edited to add: 'Open Places' would have been 1980, not 1984.l

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The 'victim art' article by Croce in the New Yorker was in 1995 or 1996, I believe.

You're right. It's reprinted in Croce's "Writing in the Dark," pp. 708-19. The title of the article is "Discussing the Undiscussable," and it's dated Dec. 26, 1994 - January 2, 1995.

She writes:

A critic has three options: (1) to see and review; (2) to see and not review; (3) not to see. A fourth option -- to write about what one has not seen -- becomes possible on strange occasions like Still/Here, from which one feels excluded by reason of its express intensions, which are unintelligible as theatre. I don't deny that Still/Here may be of value in some wholly other sphere of action, but it is as theatre, dance theatre, that I would approach it. And my approach has been cut off. By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. It think of him as literally undiscussable -- the most esxtreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs."
Croce goes on to discuss the undiscussible for another 11 pages. It's a fascinating exercise, with many strange and wonderful insights.

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Thanks for that excerpt, Bart. I have not read it again since the time. I believe there was an article about Jones in the New Yorker around the same time, but not by Croce, that included the story about the child and father, etc.

Croce writes that a critic has the choice: '(1) to see and review; (2) to see and not review; (3) not to see. A fourth option -- to write about what one has not seen -- becomes possible on strange occasions like Still/Here'.

That she does want to include the fifth option, which would be (5) to see and write about but not in the usual 'reviewer's way', is where I think there is the flaw. She could have still written about how the piece was more like performance art than theater or what-have-you and how she felt excluded from it--'and here are the reasons why' etc.

Having found out all these things about the piece beforehand, it is as if she then decided to leave out the most important piece of evidence. She is making a case and has to have all the evidence, not just the parts she prefers. If it still 'cuts off her approach', then she therefore proves it much more convincingly by seeing what she's been cut off from. If she knew all about 'the dying people' and how he was 'undiscussable', she only proves that she has seen other works and has learned something about what 'Still/Here' is going to be. And he obviously is not 'undiscussable' in all senses, because her whole article is a discussion about Jones which fails, in my estimation, because she was simply not being thorough in not seeing the work which she then uses for a kind of performative writing herself.

No, I will never be convinced she had only the 4 alternatives. Her article convinces me that I wouldn't care to see the piece, but I could have read any of the other reviews or reports and found that out.

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Croce goes on to discuss the undiscussible for another 11 pages. It's a fascinating exercise, with many strange and wonderful insights.

I agree that it is well written, but from what I have seen of Still/Here on tape, it is far cry from what you might expect a dance using "dying people" to be. It's obvious that Croce was more familiar with his work around that time than I am, but I feel like the impression she gives of the piece does not match the excerpts I have seen.

So, who HAS seen the piece, or others of his, and thinks that Croce is on the mark about it being "victim art?"

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Obviously she was familiar with his work, but she needed to be familiar with that work. She was even making a point that I essentially agree with, but I can only guess she thought not seeing it and writing about it (or around it, whatever it is that she considers the piece to be doing) was a legitimate response to the way the piece excluded, dare I say 'victimized,' her. That comes across as not journalistic enough, too emotional--not unlike something of what I think she didn't care for in his work. I think she abandoned that 'coolness' herself in refusing to see a work that she nevertheless enshrined by not seeing.

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I realize that the debate over Croce's article has been hashed out many times... the purpose of my post was that it surprises me that writers today still throw the "victim" word at him (and not just in the DanceView Times piece I referred to).

So maybe, moving away from Croce and Still/Here, what are people's thoughts on Jones today and how he is perceived?

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Obviously she was familiar with his work, but she needed to be familiar with that work. She was even making a point that I essentially agree with, but I can only guess she thought not seeing it and writing about it (or around it, whatever it is that she considers the piece to be doing) was a legitimate response to the way the piece excluded, dare I say 'victimized,' her. That comes across as not journalistic enough, too emotional--not unlike something of what I think she didn't care for in his work. I think she abandoned that 'coolness' herself in refusing to see a work that she nevertheless enshrined by not seeing.

I think that's a strong argument. But I can also imagine her simply not wanting to be manipulated. So should she not have written about the work at all then? As The New Yorker's dance critic, she was expected to deliver an opinion, and as a lover of dance and the future of dance, she would have wanted to express her opinion of what she felt was Jones' strategy. And express herself she did!

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papeetepatrick writes:

There was all sorts of controversy, including silly 'in letters' such as Susan Sontag writing in to make the final pronouncement on the debate (she hoped), making sure to include that she knew very well that Joyce Carol Oates had said the most preposterous things of anybody, but also that Croce was right in some sense, and not in some other (believe me, it doesn't matter that much.)

That was Tina Brown stirring the pot. She invited people to write in about it. I tend to regard the whole brouhaha as a sort of pseudo-event. But it's quite true, the 'victim art' bit has hung around.

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So maybe, moving away from Croce and Still/Here, what are people's thoughts on Jones today and how he is perceived?
I hope we don't lose sight of this question.

Or of the matter of why contemporary CLASSICAL ballet tends to the other extreme: ignoring almost entirely major social or political issues of today. (I mean, how much mileage can you get out of rerunning The Green Table every time the US has an unpopular war, great piece though it is.)

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So should she not have written about the work at all then? As The New Yorker's dance critic, she was expected to deliver an opinion, and as a lover of dance and the future of dance, she would have wanted to express her opinion of what she felt was Jones' strategy. And express herself she did!

I don't think she really did write about the work, but rather just about Jones, his other works, and what this work would probably be. It is this that makes, as dirac says, a 'pseudo-event'. She had it all together to write a really great piece and make it a real authentic event. And yet this result seems more the reactive, manipulated material--much more along the lines of what Jones would have really wanted.

I cannot for the life of me see why the case wouldn't have been stronger and really airtight if she had just seen the thing. It is extremely unlikely that it would have changed her view. It is impossible to say she wrote about 'Still/Here' in the authoritative way that she did write on the matter of 'victim art' and yes, I'll agree, kfw, 'Jones's strategy.' Her own strategy should not have seemed so much like his. Then it wouldn't be 'probably' but 'definitely', and there wouldn't have been that atmosphere of being merely irritated.

All right, whitelight, yeah, I hope you can find somebody who saw it (I'd certainly like to hear about that too. I'm fairly certain Ms. Jowitt did see it, but Ms. Croce's article became the focus at the time and there Jowitt was reviewing it but reacting to the article and debate at least as much as to the dance piece), but this was a part of your first post and we've needed to at least work on this too, since you brought it up, even if it's already been discussed.

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While we're at it, did anyone else see Jones' "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin" at Fall for Dance last week? (I didn't). From the description Tom Phillips' gives of it, ending with "The Last Supper as a Lynching Party"[,] the term "Victim Art" does not seem inappropriate. Forget about Croce -- Phillips seems to have found a good example in the plot of this dance.

If you have a narrative art that centers on displaying the suffering of a protagonist, and the moral, ethical, religeous, or emotional lessons to be learned -- either by the audience or by the protagonist him or herself (it matters little) -- what else would you call it?

Come to think of it, Jones stayed pretty close to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" -- a book that was about as polemical and sentimental a drama as you could have had in its day, that reached the level of propaganda in a sense, and that had large part in making the Civil War.

MP

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I saw the Uncle Tom's Cabin exceprt at FFD. Like everything else, it was very much out of context... if you didn't know about the piece, I am sure you would not have guessed that the funny, half naked dancers in the first section were the dogs in pursuit of a runaway slave. And to me, the final section, with the naked Christ-like figure very peaceful, which may or may not be the intended interpretation. I'll come out and admit that I missed the lynching altogether-- must have been a moment of severe density.

I still cannot agree that the narrative "centers on displaying the suffering of a protagonist," though Jones clearly has "lessons to be learned" as his aim. I guess I think of filmmaker Lars Von Trier as a perfect example of a "victim artist," where Bill T Jones, to me, creates a much broader picture.

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I still cannot agree that the narrative "centers on displaying the suffering of a protagonist," though Jones clearly has "lessons to be learned" as his aim. I guess I think of filmmaker Lars Von Trier as a perfect example of a "victim artist," where Bill T Jones, to me, creates a much broader picture.
I've only seen one of Jones' early works (with Arnie Zane, who was still alive at the time), Secret Pastures, but from the descriptions I've read of his later work, I've always been puzzled by the term "victim art" being applied to him. I agree 100% with the term being applied to von Trier.

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I missed Still/Here not because I was offended, but because I had seen Jones' concert the year previously at the Joyce and wasn't impressed. I only thought the works were interesting when Jones started talking.

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Speaking of film directors, I'd like to know if filmmakers like Derek Jarman and Terence Davies are perceived as 'victim artists.' I only saw 'The Last of England' some years back of the former, but recently watched Davies's 'Distant Voices, Still Lives' and 'The Neon Bible.' This is a more sorrowful kind of thing than I usually care for, but I thought Davies was convincing in his sincerity. 'Distant Voices...' is the better of the two because he knows Liverpool far better than the Deep South, but in both I was struck by his use of music. It can work very effectively even when outrageously broad and somewhat corny, as using the whole 'Gone With the Wind' overture (including the opening bells) for sheets hanging on an impoverished family's washline, or that marvelous choir he uses in 'Distant Voices...' in this long Christmas montage of Liverpool housefronts. That's conducted by Simon Preston and is Britten's 'Hymn to the Virgin' followed by 'In the Bleak Midwinter' and is almost indescribably exquisite.

(sorry--half Off-topic.)

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So maybe, moving away from Croce and Still/Here, what are people's thoughts on Jones today and how he is perceived?

I hope we don't lose sight of this question.

Or of the matter of why contemporary CLASSICAL ballet tends to the other extreme: ignoring almost entirely major social or political issues of today. (I mean, how much mileage can you get out of rerunning The Green Table every time the US has an unpopular war, great piece though it is.)

Does classical ballet ignore major social or political issues today, in the sense that its makers don't care, or think they're above it? Or because the art form isn't suited to REALISM? Its whole philosophy is, as Levinson and Kirstein, among others, have written, to celebrate the art of the vertical, the ideal. Through character dance, in works like "Dark Elegies," for example, it can touch darker moods, but that is not its strength, nor what its vocabulary is designed to do.

Portraying contemporary issues, showing things as they are, turning inward, using the floor -- all these are the strengths of MODERN DANCE, not classical ballet. It's one of the reasons for the modern dance rebellion -- a yearning to deal with everyday life, political material, etc. ("The Green Table" is a modern dance work.)

I read articles excoriating classical ballet for its flitty, flighty oh-so-irrelevant view of life so often (and I know this isn't what bart meant, but it's what a lot of people do mean!) that I wanted to offer this clarification. If you want to see theater that deals with real life DON'T GO TO THE BALLET! Robert Greskovic wrote something in Ballet 101 that is particularly apt here: "Ballet is not a realistic art form; it’s a lyrical poetic one."

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Amen.

I've put it another way - I'm less passionate about seeing Who We Are onstage than Who We Could Be. Ballet is about The Ideal.

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I read articles excoriating classical ballet for its flitty, flighty oh-so-irrelevant view of life so often (and I know this isn't what bart meant, but it's what a lot of people do mean!) that I wanted to offer this clarification. If you want to see theater that deals with real life DON'T GO TO THE BALLET! Robert Greskovic wrote something in Ballet 101 that is particularly apt here: "Ballet is not a realistic art form; it’s a lyrical poetic one."

Which of course (and I'm sure I'm not contradicting you) means that it deals with reality at it's deepest.

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I read articles excoriating classical ballet for its flitty, flighty oh-so-irrelevant view of life so often (and I know this isn't what bart meant, but it's what a lot of people do mean!) that I wanted to offer this clarification. If you want to see theater that deals with real life DON'T GO TO THE BALLET! Robert Greskovic wrote something in Ballet 101 that is particularly apt here: "Ballet is not a realistic art form; it’s a lyrical poetic one."

Which of course (and I'm sure I'm not contradicting you) means that it deals with reality at it's deepest.

kfw, I would agree with that. As Balanchine said (it's on the biography, voice over for "Chaconne," I believe), "The real world is not here." One can take that in a spiritual sense or an intellectual sense, but the point is a good one. Reality at its deepest -- the same thing that's said about poetry, to take an individual story and make it a universal truth (through poetry).

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So, I don't really know any ballet enthusiasts who enjoy Jones, but I am interested in whatever opinions are posted in response.

I'm afraid I've only seen one piece of his, and it was done not by his company but the Ailey troupe. I remember it as being a zippy little number and fun to watch, but not its name, alas. I really do think I'll seek him out next time around, though.

QUOTE(whitelight @ Oct 6 2006, 06:46 AM)
I still cannot agree that the narrative "centers on displaying the suffering of a protagonist," though Jones clearly has "lessons to be learned" as his aim. I guess I think of filmmaker Lars Von Trier as a perfect example of a "victim artist," where Bill T Jones, to me, creates a much broader picture.

Helene:

I've only seen one of Jones' early works (with Arnie Zane, who was still alive at the time), Secret Pastures, but from the descriptions I've read of his later work, I've always been puzzled by the term "victim art" being applied to him. I agree 100% with the term being applied to von Trier.

Couldn't agree more with both of you. I'd go so far as to call von Trier 'victim porn' (although I admire some aspects of his filmmaking). It doesn't sound to me as if Jones is trying for that, but obviously opinions differ and I'd have to see for myself. :yahoo:

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Thanks, Alexandra, for your post. I accept, understand, and actually adore the idealism and out-of-this-world quality of classical ballet. And I admit that it difficult to imagine how Balanchine or Ashton (let alone Petipa) Might have dealt with the evils of slavery, the horrors of war, or the pain and suffeirng of AIDS.

However, "realism" and "idealism" are only opposites when considered as ideal types or heuristic models. In reality, they overlap quite a bit. And I believe that it IS possible to create lyrical works about real issues (problems, pains, etc.) and even about the victims of those circumstances. Reality is broad and deep. "Realism" is the amount of surface clutter we apply to it.

Just take a few of the most obvious classical works ---

Swan Lake, though located comfortably in a fairy-tale setting, deals with great evil, with a miserable kind of servitude, and with great suffering.

Romeo and Juliet (which is safely placed in the distant historical past) deals with the tragic effects of a kind of war -- the cruel and ruthless competition, quite realistically expressed on stage, between the Capulets and the Montagues.

Who are Odile and Siegfried, Romeo and Juliet, if not victims of clearly articulated "real" and often evil forces in their worlds. Are we not meant to sympathized with the victims in these ballets? Didn't their creators want us to be moved by the way that deep feeling -- expressed in beautiful movement -- can bring transcendence to the characters who suffer?

Why couldn't similar ballets be constructed (at the highest level of art) out of more contemporary or "real" situations? One simple answer might be -- the best classically-based choreographers have either been uninterested or turned off by such topics. The same might be true of your traditional "ballet" audience.

This, it seems to me, is more a matter of limited vision (not necessarily a bad thing) than to restrictions imposed by the art form itself.

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bart, I think you answered your own question :yahoo: Swan Lake and R&J do not deal with contemporary issues or subjects. They deal with timeless emotions/questions/issues in a way that is suited to the language, customs and ideals of the art form.

I do not accept at all that the avoidance of contemporary subjects by classical/neoclassical ballet choreographers is because of "limited vision." An anecdote: once upon a time in Copenhagen, the Royal Danish Ballet did "The Four Temperaments." An older ballerina, a Landergirl, came to the artistic director and said it would have been so much betrter if the girls had been wearing pinkchecked skirts and their hair in little side curls. The response is not recorded, but the costumes were not changed. This may not at first seem relevant to the issue under discussion, but I offer it as an example of understanding what is basic to an art form or sensibility or piece. We're not asking Bill T. Jones to make something pretty. It's the wrong question.

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I missed Still/Here not because I was offended, but because I had seen Jones' concert the year previously at the Joyce and wasn't impressed. I only thought the works were interesting when Jones started talking.

I think this is fair criticism, and I meant to anticipate it in some way. The movement is not usually the most interesting element of his work, though I wouldn't call it theater or performance art, because to me, the bodies are so important. This may be a naive statement to make, but I think his style is a very American "danztheater."

And I couldn't agree more with Alexandra: Bill T Jones's work is not (and should not be) pretty.

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