Cal Performances is a Bay Area treasure. Last year it presented, among other riches, Yo-Yo Ma and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and this season it offers Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham, the Abbey Theater and Robert Lepage, the Kronos Quartet and Sarah Chang, Pat Metheney and Dianne Reeves. Pretty impressive, and that’s not half of a list that comprises talent from Argentina, Senegal and Africa.
Culturally rich and artistically diverse, Cal Performances is one of the best music/drama/dance series in the United States, so thanks to director Robert Coles and his team – and happy 97th birthday, too.
The trio of dances showcased at Zellerbach Hall last weekend was a good example of the richness the series has. Challenging and inventive, the dances were performed by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, with accompaniment by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
The collaboration fused in classy style.
Jones and his partner (who died some years ago) founded their troupe in 1982. Heaped with honors, it’s become known for a blend of dance and theater, but also for a deeper-than-usual connection to the music that inspires it. In choreographer Jones’ work, the musicians sometimes interact onstage with the performers; and in describing one piece, Jones tells how, to get his troupe closer to the music, he made them create movements suitable to each musical line: cello, viola, violin.
The result is complex and fascinating and, yes, sometimes perplexing. (Jones’ work has its Merce Cunningham side.) The first dance of the evening was the taut but airy “Verbum” set to Beethoven’s Quartet in F major, played with sprightly precision by the Orion String Quartet. It began with a woman in a silvery leotard strolling casually as the musicians tuned up. Others joined her, doing handstands and stretches, tuning up too; clearly Jones wants to remind us that the body is also an instrument. The piece was performed in a happy mode with the help of three amusingly wiggly Jean Dubuffet-like sculptures. The dancing was loose-limbed and playful, the performers grinning as they rode the music’s line. Fingers played an important role, mischievously poking, making imaginary pistols that were thrust into make-believe holsters, jabbing pointedly at the ground, as if to say, “Here’s where it happens!” The highlight was Malcolm Low’s solemn yet sweet third movement solo.
The second work was “World II (18 Movements to Kurtag)” set to rhythmic contemporary music by Gyorgy Kurtag, played with verve by members of the Chamber Music Society Two. Here nine dancers, in white costumes edged with black, moved with cool self-possession, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes aggressively, sometimes pausing in hieratic stillness. Jones is very modern, and as exciting as modern dance can be, without the discipline of form it can fall apart, and “World II” seemed awfully busy and went on awfully long, as if Jones were so absorbed in inventing, he forgot to shape his work. For this viewer it was like trying to read hieroglyphics without a Rosetta Stone.
Happily the final offering, “D-Man in the Waters,” made up for these frustrations, with a resoundingly clear meaning: fun in the water. Performed to the happy rush of Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat major, it began with a flood of dancers in sea green, making loops and wiggling hands, like an eager school of fish. Its witty exuberance – swimming and diving and slow-mo crawls through the deep – brought the audience to its feet. It featured an epigraph: “In a dream you saw a way to survive, and you were full of joy.” The water-play stands for that joy, and it bespoke it nowhere better than in the breathtaking final moment, when one dancer was flung by the rest into the air before he plummeted back into their waiting, saving arms.
For tickets to future Cal Performances events, call 642-9988.