…or just his politics?
A Quarreling Pair (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) is a strange, disturbing show – and not in a good way. Bill T. Jones latest is an extravaganza with a vaudevillian premise. One of the musicians announces company members in various acts, as burlesque performers, acrobats, and the titular sisters. But right now, anyone in New York City can see contemporary, sometimes titillating, often erotic, queer, and overtly political burlesque (if you're lucky, all at the same time) for the cost of a few drinks. So simply presenting a vaudevillian frame is far from cutting-edge, or even very interesting. Something has to be done with that cabaret frame. Yet Jones neither takes it over the top, nor challenges its politics. Instead, he simply gives us bad vaudeville – Asli "Boom Boom's" burlesque is both tame and trite (Jones could have called Brown Girls Burlesque for something sexier), and the "acrobats" are unimaginative and unimpressive (he could have called lava for something more interesting and, well, actually acrobatic). Adding to the confusion, the performers are sometimes set in an early 20th century context, and sometimes in the 70s or more recently, as with two go-go-ing young men (whose section is way too long) in briefs and sneakers.
If the frame is weak, the narrative inside it does not hang together any better. Is it a behind-the scenes story of sideshow characters' "real" lives? Is it a simple variety show? Early on we are told that one of the "quarreling pair" speaks to the dead – but we see no evidence of this, and at the end, when the dead speak to her, she seems either dazed or confused. And why would this woman run away from her sister to become a famous singer, then botch her performances by taking the sister's calls on stage? The seemingly random mash-up of times, stories, and styles simply does not make sense, either as a narrative piece or as a postmodern collage. The audience cannot see ourselves in these confused scenes any more than we can understand the characters themselves. And while the dancing is, of course, lovely and engaging – nothing has diminished Jones' status as a master choreographer – there is too little of it to keep the audience's interest. In short, none of the concepts or characters were strong enough for Jujustring to care.
But if A Quarreling Pair was just a poorly conceived performance, JJS would not have bothered to write about it at all. Everyone, especially stalwarts such as Bill T. Jones, are allowed an "off" piece. (Baryshnikov is, evidently, allowed more than one.) What was more shocking and upsetting was the offensive politics of the performance, which endorses the cliché that avant-garde creators who, as they age, question the efficacy of – or get tired of – addressing "issues" in their work. You couldn't fault Jones if, after the explicitly political Still/Here, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Blind Date he just wanted to create something lighter. The problem is that his "fun" comes at the expense of black women and nonheteronormative figures.
The following questions are roughly in order of the occurrence of the events in the piece; their order does not necessarily correspond to their offensiveness. Why does a white man turn his partner and equal, a previously "mystical" black man, into a horny, pissing dog? Why is women's intimacy reduced to a stereotypical heterosexual male erotic (but not sexual) fantasy? Why is playful, affectionate, intimacy almost exclusively reserved for heterosexual pairs? Why is eroticism or intimacy between men almost nonexistent? Why is the biggest joke of the piece a stereotypical caricature – a cursing, Mexican transvestite who is terrified of women's genitalia? Why is that same transvestite scripted as repeatedly verbally, and then physically abusing a black woman until she is near death? Why does that black woman – who was strong enough to defy her domineering older sister and leave home – too feeble to even fight back? And how did Jones get here from the 1945 Jane Bowles play that inspired him, and is full of "irony" and "lesbian sensibility"?*
JJS does not actually think Bill T. Jones has lost his mind. A Quarreling Pair probably would have been much more interesting if Jones was older and senile. JJS isn't even completely willing to say he's lost his politics. But clearly, he has lost his perspective. Major amounts of money were obviously poured into this show – constant costume changes, a multimedia set, and of course the hard-working dancers and musicians. Perhaps Jones would do better without the bells and whistles – not to repeat the dances he's done before, but to go back to basics and focus on craft and concept, to put more dance back into his dances and not rely on stock characters and stereotypes. Or perhaps this is simply the beginning of the denouement of his career. For the sake of audiences who appreciate beautiful and thoughtful dance, we hope not!