IMPRESSIONS: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s "A Letter to My Nephew" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
Conceived and directed by Bill T. Jones
Choreography: Bill T. Jones with Janet Wong and the Company
Performance: Vinson Fraley, Jr., Barrington Hinds, Shane Larson, I-Ling Liu, Penda N’Diaye, Jenna Riegel, Christina Robson, Carlo Antonio Villanueva, Huiwang Zhang
Original Score: Nick Hallett
Set: Bjorn Amelan
Sound: Samuel Crawford
Young people think they know everything. Older people, though, know that they don’t know much. Life’s funny like that. The further you go, the more it disabuses you of your certainty. Yet some notions become truth, reinforced as they are through experience and knowledge. Thus, when an older person speaks, we should listen.
Bill T. Jones takes a personal approach to this in A Letter to My Nephew, which after being performed around the world, landed at Brooklyn Academy of Music for a one-week run at the Harvey Theater. Imagined in 2015 as the second in a trilogy about Jones’ troubled nephew, the work merges the personal with the political.
Lance T. Briggs is titular nephew. Once a promising entertainer, he has fought addiction and AIDS to now find himself a paraplegic. He and Jones stay in touch, and several of Briggs’ musical compositions are incorporated into the piece. Using text, movement, and props (a hospital bed, half-dozen sticks), Jones constructs a “demimonde” (his word) of lovers and fighters within which Briggs may comfortably fit.
Micro vignettes, ranging from a handful of seconds to several minutes, surge across the stage. In the beginning and then later, dancers “brawl” with kicks and punches that eschew realism for grace. They hoist a white screen — it will eventually host videos and photos — over their heads. Twice, Huiwang Zhang slips through gorgeous phrases that soften the angles of his body into tensile curves.
Percolating with influences from African, hip-hop, and modern idioms, performers segue from funky, punchy posturing to elegant duets where partners incline against and recline on another’s body. They walk: on stage, off stage, through the outline of an X taped to the stage. They stare — sometimes at us, sometimes at each other. No matter the activity, their energy remains excessive, their attitudes assertive.
Through this, Vinson Fraley, Jr., seemingly Briggs’ avatar, saunters on his tiptoes, his arches accentuated like a Barbie doll’s, his hips swinging in loose ellipses. Scenes swirl around him: a ball complete with strutting voguers and a ballet class. Clad in a white sweat suit and red socks, he joins for a moment before being cast to the margins, often to a hospital bed. Even in a world built for him, he cannot fully inhabit it.
Snippets of missives from Jones to Briggs appear on the back wall and white screen. Jones seems in a reflective mood, remembering what Brooklyn was like in the ‘90s when he received his BAM debut. The neighborhood has changed, we read.
A Letter to My Nephew has the rambling incoherence of a night at the club where thumping beats provide urgency and meaning, and disco anthems blare with imperatives. “Work this pussy,” urges one. “Walk 4 Me,” instructs another.
The seventy-minute work passes like the dance version of a Facebook feed — bursts of information that bid for your attention with fervency and brevity. The impulses are so many, the scenarios so short, that it’s impossible to be impacted by any of them.
“Keep fighting,” says Jones toward the end. It’s apt advice, but, really, what’s the alternative? To not fight? To yield to the rot of racism and homophobia? With its ripped-from-the-headlines imagery and banalities, A Letter to My Nephew just feels like another iteration of what we — young or old — already know.
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Read our IMPRESSIONS of BTJAZ's earlier Analogy installment Lance: Pretty AKA the Escape Artist here.