In "Eliza on the Ice," one of the four movements in "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," Bill T. Jones shows a series of Elizas fleeing some kind of peril across a not-quite-frozen river.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," upon which much of the dance piece is based, the slave Eliza flees her captors across the ice. But in Jones' meditation on the 19th century anti-slavery classic, several Elizas flee any number of hounds, either historical or contemporary. One Eliza is a man.
It's easy to imagine Jones out there on the ice himself. He was a track athlete who chose to dance. He was a young man confronted by his sexual identity. He was a choreographer who dared to challenge the image of dancers as lean and delicate. And he is a person whose lover and partner, Arnie Zane, died young.
FROM THAT cauldron of a life comes "The Last Supper," a big dance piece by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Co., with an extensive use of text, philosophy, theology and movement. It will be performed at 8 p.m Tuesday in Hoch Auditorium as part of the Kansas University New Direction Series.
It was all those conditions, tribulations and triumphs surrouding Jones' life that prompted him to look back on religion, race and sex.
"We had the flippant title at the beginning of it, and we began to work with it," Jones said in a telephone interview from a tour stop in State College, Pa. "I'm really a pretty literal person, so I thought about the novel and Christ and the Last Supper. . . . And I thought a lot about my mother, who happens to be here, and it's hard for me to see how she can have a very strong faith and I can't, and how she's been able to hold on to that and we still live on the same world.
"Or do we? . . . It's a Judeo-Christian question of how much suffering can one take.''
THOSE QUESTIONS get explored in detail in his current dance piece. In the first act, called "The Cabin," his company retells the Stowe novel. The second act, "Eliza on the Ice," takes Eliza's escape and explores it from the suffering of several characters, the inventions of Jones' company. The third, called "The Supper," begins with a living tableau based on da Vinci's painting, a copy of which once hung in Jones' boyhood home. It then develops into a complicated series of dances alongside a rap text by another company member.
In the final act, "The Promised Land," Jones' company joins more than 30 dancers from the host community. Two men recite Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Had a Dream" speech backwards in a confrontational style. Jones and a company member trade dialogue from LeRoi Jones' play "The Dutchman." The company dances and parades throughout this action, and in the final moment they stand nude and face the audience, symbolizing, Jones says, their shared humanity.
IN BETWEEN two of these acts, Jones questions a member of the clergy about the book of Job and matters of faith and sex. At another point, Jones' mother comes onstage and prays for the audience.
"Not all of Jones' sprawling new piece is effective, but the cumulatve impact is tremendous," Laura Shapiro wrote in November in Newsweek.
The entire dance piece had its official premiere late last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; "The Promised Land" also was developed and performed in Minneapolis. On the current tour, Jones has so far taken the full production to Burlington, Vt., Ann Arbor, Mich., and Pennsylvania. Other stops will include Iowa City, Iowa.
One of the challenges of moving the piece from community to community is choosing and rehearsing the dancers who will join Jones' company for the evening. In Lawrence, more than 55 people auditioned Dec. 8, and rehearsal directors traveled ahead of the company to work with the locals.
"IT'S AN amazing experience," Jones said about meeting the local dancers. "When we got here to Penn State after traveling all day, we walked into the room and it was just the local people in the piece, and they all stood up and applauded. We were caught off guard.
"In Ann Arbor, when we got to rehearsal for the first time the dancers there were more sophisticated, they were used to having dancers come there. So they just went about their business.
"In Burlington, they were mostly all community people; they have other professions, and the atmosphere there was like an aerobics class. Each time is totally different.''
Since Minneapolis and Brooklyn, Jones has gone back and reworked sections of the dance, cutting several areas down.
"I've been pruning it back a lot," he said. "To date I've lost 20 minutes. I've taken some of the dance and text out, honing it down. Here at Penn State it looks good. I was trying to see if I had lost the heart of it, but it's still there.''
JONES, 38, was born and raised in upstate New York. A standout athlete, he studied theater and dance at the State University of New York at Binghamton, graduating in 1971.
"I started dancing in college, when I started skipping out on track practice,'' he said. "I've always been involved in theater. I had an enlightened theater teacher in high school, and I was always an athlete. But the beauty of dance won me over; I gravitated toward this new thing.''
He met Zane in college, and the two soon developed a distinctive style of movement in a collaboration and relationship that lasted 17 years. Zane, short and strong, would often lift Jones over his shoulders. Together, they developed pieces such as "Monkey Run Road."
In the 1980s, Jones and Zane drew a core group of performers who, like themselves, came in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Now numbering 13, they have a reputation for contentious behavior, but on this tour Jones said they're minding their manners.
"THE DANCERS are a lot less contentious now," he said. "They're giving their performances more care and they're doing a lot of hard work in rehearsal, their attitude is `Do the work so Bill doesn't make us do it too many times.' They're aware they're working with community people and the nudity, so in rehearsal they're on their best behavior. We are now a little community.''
It was Zane who came up with the title of the new piece, more or less as a joke. He died in 1988, and now Jones carries on the work the two started. Jones said he's taken on the mantle of company leadership, but it doesn't fit comfortably.
"I don't want to be a guru," he said. "A leader has the responsibility to lead all the time, and like all artists I need time for myself because the art demands I go off and let other people stand by. I'm not a guru.''
SO FAR, he said, the reaction to the piece on tour has been positive. The final moment of nudity, amounting to about three minutes of stage time, hasn't overshadowed the rest of the performance.
"It has in the media before the event, but that's another world," he said. "In terms of the event, I haven't found a lot of resistance.''
The clergy he's interviewed spontaneously on stage have been supportive of his ideas, he said. But that wasn't really what he had in mind when he chose to include ministers in the performance.
"In my innocence I started out to find people who would disagree," he said. "I wanted a fundamentalist minister, not necessarily to argue with me. But I found I've been getting people with very liberal views. The more conservative ministers we did find dropped out; they got cold feet.''
JONES ASKED his mother to offer a prayer because he's fascinated by her faith, he said, and she's happy to help out.
"When she prays, she's the star of the show," he said. "She can go back to her friends in San Francisco and to her church and say, `My son took me to Paris and all around the country,' and of course she did. Also she doesn't have to come along with the company. It's her decision where she wants to go and where she doesn't. So she has a lot of nice letters from presenters asking her to come.''
In the future, Jones plans to direct operas in Great Britain and Houston. He said he finds opera a way of combining his past experiences in dance and theater.
"I've never been far away from it (theater). I've always used text, although in a more abstract manner," he said. "I have been able to satisfy that side of me. I just got back from England after directing a BBC production of Michael Tippett's `New Year.' Opera is very theatrical, and I've always been attracted to narrative.''
Jones is also thinking about the future in another way what time and age mean for his body.
"It's changing,'' he said. "I'm 38 now. My body has been very good to me throughout my life, the only injury I've had was a twisted ankle. And I've abused it by not warming up, which comes out of my athletic background. I'm very athletic, and I think my movement is very soft and sensitive, but I'm getting older.''