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DANCE REVIEW : An Unfulfilling ‘Last Supper’

TIMES DANCE WRITER

Los Angeles last saw the brilliant Bill T. Jones at the end of 1989, when he brought his mother onstage at the Black Choreographers Festival for questions about her Christian faith and the suffering he endured following the death from AIDS-related lymphoma of his lover and creative partner, Arnie Zane.

That unforgettable exchange has now been freeze-dried, diced and sweetened for inclusion in Jones’ three-hour bibliographic spectacle, “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,” introduced to UCLA audiences on Thursday in Royce Hall. Here 32 locally recruited dancers and seven other guests join Jones and his company in a sprawling literary pageant that leaves Jones himself painted into a corner as both performer and creator.

He still asks hard questions about God--but his pain has inevitably cooled, the conversation takes place way upstage and the answers come not from his mother but a local minister (on Thursday the Rev. Odette Lockwood-Stewart of United Methodist Church, UCLA). We’re no longer invisible witnesses to a family crisis; instead, we’re watching a PBS talk show.

Jones does appear again with his mother, but here it’s almost a conventional performance: She sings a blessing, he dances a magnificently supple response and, although nothing else in the evening approaches the authenticity of their moments together, we’ve no reason to believe that either of them will be changed by the experience this time.

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Beyond the duet with Estella Jones and the interview with the Rev. Lockwood-Stewart, Jones remains offstage for “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,” and we feel his absence acutely. Indeed, not since Tim Miller’s “Democracy in America” has a major performing artist so marginalized himself in a work that desperately needed his piercing intelligence and, above all, his unpredictability.

Without Jones, the work has no center--for, essentially, it’s a quest for context, a research project collecting words and images defining the issues of faith, race and sexuality that Jones explored in the 1989 piece and continues to discuss with the guest ministers.

Pop consciousness represents a key element in the work, beginning with a digest of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” presented in pseudo-naive folk theater style. Alas, the mediocre staging leaves interest only fitful, but we do at least encounter the thematic building blocks of the work: a crisis of faith after the death of Little Eva, for instance, and Uncle Tom as a Job-like innocent, accepting his pain as God’s will.

We also encounter the first of many retrograde structures (scenes and speeches run backwards), a portrayal of Harriet Beecher Stowe that provides a comic critique of white liberalism and (in a slave-auction scene and a dog ensemble) glimpses of the nudity that will develop into a full-company statement by the finale.

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Before that sentimental affirmation, however, Jones dissects a library of classic texts on black consciousness, probing for essences in a credo by Sojourner Truth, a vision of freedom by Martin Luther King Jr., a portrait of oppression by Leroi Jones (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka). However, this material and Ann T. Greene’s adaptation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” demand a director combining Living Theatre political savvy with Story Theatre ingenuity--and Jones fumbles many of his opportunities, with an excerpt from the play “Dutchman” in bloated epic style especially unfortunate. Choreographic possibilities prove limited, with dance often functioning as embellishment rather than primary expression.

Personal testimony by company members becomes highlights--in particular the sharp autobiographical rap by R. Justice Allen and Heidi Latsky’s furious solo (spoken and danced) about faith and betrayal. But in the absence of Jones’ own voice, the unifying consciousness of the evening is musical: hyper-intense jazz by Julius Hemphill.

Played live by Hemphill, Kenny Berger, James Carter, Sam Furnace, Carl Grubbs and Andrew White, this saxophone-laden score sometimes sounds as assaultive as a city full of ghetto-blasters booming simultaneously, elsewhere like a distillation of every bluesy lament anyone ever imagined. More than accompaniment, it fills the hollows of the evening with feeling and exemplifies the transformation of source material into original creation that has yet to occur in the dramatic/choreographic sections of the work.

Huck Snyder’s bright, bold scenic cutouts, costumes and masks create stage pictures that suggest a home-made billboard, but the work itself seems assembled by committee rather than personally crafted. Here and there it offers moments of disarming intimacy (sometimes between performers, more often between performers and their texts) along with passages of daring movement invention (usually undeveloped). And, of course, it strongly confronts America’s racial and sexual prejudice.

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But until it finds a place for one of America’s finest dancers--the man who created it--it’ll remain incomplete, a personal outcry without the person. In art, some people are irreplaceable and testimony by proxy is never the real thing.


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