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Dance Review

In a new era of dance, early works still resonate

Jones restages duets crafted with Zane

Talli Jackson (top) and Erick Montes perform “Monkey Run Road’’ during the world premiere of “Body Against Body’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Talli Jackson (top) and Erick Montes perform “Monkey Run Road’’ during the world premiere of “Body Against Body’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Thea Singer
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2011

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Bill T. Jones unadorned is a revelation.

Before his sprawling investigations of faith and multimedia extravaganzas, before his audience-baiting solos and Kennedy Center honors, Jones was half of a duo — in life and work — that was passionate about experimentation in dance.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, who died in 1988, crafted quasi-improvisational yet formalist duets that grappled with the space where private meets public. Playing off each other, they plumbed the push and pull of identity politics, why freedom both releases and constrains us, how presentation creates meaning. Theirs was a repertoire of dynamics, both physical and personal, where emotion seeped through abstraction.

Three of those early works, restaged by Jones, comprised the world premiere “Body Against Body.’’

“Monkey Run Road’’ (1979), by Jones and Zane, is the most nonchalant yet mind-opening of the lot. It’s actually a dance for three: two men and a large wooden box that the pair push around the stage, sit on in characteristic poses, and even fall headfirst inside. Alternating as watchers and doers, they create a series of moving pictures to Helen Thorington’s humming, creaking score and spoken text. Erick Montes’s hands rise as if pulled by marionette strings, then dangle like paws. Talli Jackson later echoes the sequence, but the pulling is between two fists. Montes crouches, his hands as tiny horns on his head. Jackson stretches into a lunge arcing his sternum to the sky. The phrases repeat and travel backward, speed up, and change direction — showing us that what we see is sometimes what we get, but sometimes so much more. Minimalism, we realize, can have epic proportions.

“Continuous Replay’’ grew from Zane’s 1977 “Hand Dance.’’ Clad in layers, Zane slipped through variations of 45 gestures. Jones’s restaging adds people — there are 11 — and removes clothes: Everyone starts off naked. It’s an exercise in accumulation: people, movements, John Oswald’s music, even wardrobe accumulate as the piece progresses. Led by the powerful Peter Chamberlin as timekeeper, the dancers start in profile upstage, travel down one side, and across the apron, sweeping and darting and clacking their arms inside Robert Wierzel’s shafts of light.

“Blauvelt Mountain (A Fiction)’’ (1980) is a serious game of word and movement association. In this revision of the Jones-Zane duet, Jones casts a woman with a man. The give-and take swings from gentle (a whisper in an ear) to aggressive (a knock upside the head). Taut barrel turns beget seat straddles beget spins on knees. The relationship intrigues, but the dance goes on too long.

If only there had been projections of the original works against the restagings. Juxtaposing past with present would have shown the distance Jones and dance in general have traveled and how context can change the very meaning of a work.

Thea Singer can be reached at thea.singer@comcast.net.

BILL T. JONES/ARNIE ZANE DANCE COMPANY “Body Against Body’’

Presented by the Institute of Contemporary Art and Foundation for Dance Promotion Inc.

At: the ICA, Friday-Sunday