In "The Promised Land," the most fully realized movement in Bill T. Jones' epic dance piece, there's a moment when a line of people big, small, good-looking and not start hugging, shaking hands and pushing each other away.
A male dancer starts moving down the line. One dancer embraces him; another pushes him away briefly, then shakes his hand; and others step competely away or push him aside.
This scene continues until two men are left on stage, and even then one man ducks the other's embrace. The audience laughs, but it's a very sad scene. It's as if one's whole life, full of embraces and rejections, was played out in a very short time.
"The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," which was presented Tuesday night at Hoch Auditorium as a part of the Kansas University New Directions Series, is full of those wonderful moments. The work mixes skilled dance with an exceptional sense of drama and composition.
THE PERFORMANCE, broken into two acts, features three movements playing off the plot and themes of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel as well as a deconstruction, in dance, of da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper.'' The final portion is danced both by the 13 core members of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co. and 39 dancers, including non-professionals and students, from Lawrence and Iowa.
The first section, called "The Cabin,'' takes the audience through a memorable mix of dance styles as the company tells the story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," pausing to reflect on the stoic religious faith the slave Uncle Tom held even as he died from abuse. Many of the dance steps in this first section slaves dancing slowly because of their chains, a Jim Crow dance and Simon Legree's whipping of Tom later meld into the "The Promised Land,'' the show's finale.
THE SECOND part, "Eliza on the Ice," is supposed to show five Elizas, one slave and four contemporary, fleeing a group of dancers portraying dogs. Two parts of the movement involve narrative, some of which became garbled Tuesday because of the stage miking.
The other three dances, done without narrative, leave the audience in some confusion over the purpose of those parts we are set up to expect more narrative. But the dancing in those pieces is still excellent, with one female dancer executing an intricate set of footwork as she holds an oar.
Before the third part, Jones' mother comes on the stage to pray for her son and the soldiers in Operation Desert Storm. Again, the mike seemed to take away from her prayer, and the moment seemed to catch the audience off-guard.
THE FINAL movement of the first act, "The Supper," uses some striking compositional motifs involving a series of disciple chairs, standing in a row. The key figure in the movement, R. Justice Allen, opens the scene with a rap song about his life. At the end, despite an imprisonment, Allen gets to join the disciples in the final, reconstructed tableau of "The Last Supper.''
After the intermission, a Kansas City Lutheran minister told the story of Job as Jones himself danced with two company members. Afterward, Jones joined the minister, the Rev. Sharon Kelly, for a frank, slightly disjointed discussion of Job as Jones tried to catch his breath. Jones persistently asked Kelly why she had faith in the face of immense suffering, and she responded that mortality was part of God's scheme.
Then, finally, comes "The Promised Land," which features intermittent nudity and the entire cast, some 50 people, standing nude at the end.
HERE, THE more experienced dancers from Jones' company mix with the Lawrence and Iowa dancers in a long, intense sequence of dances and text, including Martin Luther King's "I Had a Dream" speech recited backward and a scene of seduction and violence from LeRoi Jones' "The Dutchman.'' Julius Hemphill's music fades in and out, making silence as much a part of the dance's sound as the notes.
Jones obviously trades technical expertise in this section for his aesthetic, and by and large it works. It's an athletic dance, starting off with what looks like a formal dinner party and progressing until the company, mostly nude, sits on the stage floor in two crosses and pounds on the floor.
In between, we're treated to some stunning scenes, including a procession of masks and a multi-focused section that featured dancers flinging themselves at each other, to be caught mid-air.
WHEN THE first male nude dancer emerges, he jars the audience awake as he dances among the still-dressed cast, eventually moving atop a table as the others surround him. Then, as dancers begin appearing with less and less clothing, it seems more natural and accepted. Here, Jones seems to move toward a goal, letting the audience's expectations of nudity at first be disrupted and then, eventually, integrated into the progress of the performance.
Sage Cowles and Allen, who perform the "Dutchman" scene, deliver the lines in a stylized manner that fit in with the highly stylized dance sequence. By the end, the image of the people you've watched for almost three hours, now standing naked and quiet, is riveting.
If anything, the piece lacks any stunning intellectual leaps, besides the modernization of the Uncle Tom saga. But its level of feeling is profound indeed, as Jones as an artist faces the death of his partner, Arnie Zane, and mortality.
Sometimes dance is the best expression of those feelings.
Richard LeComte J-W Arts Editor