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Setting Spoken Truth in Motion

Arnie Zane stood 5 feet, 5 inches tall and had the face of a street-wise corner shopkeeper. But when the Bronx-born Jewish boy danced, he commanded the stage with the precision and power of a boomerang. Together with Bill T. Jones, his partner in life and art, they were the oddest of couples — Arnie buzzing around Bill, who towered over him with leonine grace. But their complementary nature made them fascinating in every aspect: their philosophy, their choreography and their presence.

Zane died of AIDS-related lymphoma at the age of 39 in 1988, but Jones never changed the name of their ensemble; it remains the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance

Company. To honor the company’s 20th anniversary season this year, Jones is paying tribute to the couple’s choreographic roots by presenting early solos, duets and group works by the two men, dating back to 1977. The Kitchen, the downtown dance venue where Jones and Zane made their Manhattan debut, has kick-started the season with “The Phantom Project,” an important retrospective of their dances, from September 9 to September 20. During the fall, the company will tour with this project to Iowa City, Austin, Texas, Chicago and Madrid, Spain, finishing up in Lille, France. And the troupe’s weeklong engagement at Brooklyn Academy of Music begins on February 3, 2004.

The ethos that Zane and Jones embraced in their choreography — dance-theater works that favored spoken text — emphasized personal truth. Zane purposely never hid anything — his sexuality, his beliefs, or the fact that he lived with AIDS, an issue people ran from in the mid-1980s. In a sense, the politics of race and ethnicity were forced upon Jones and Zane from the get-go. Twenty-five years ago, the sight of a slight Caucasian man and a powerful black man dancing with complex intimacy made some audiences titter and pigeonholed them into racial roles. “The whole question for Jewish people in America was — unlike people of color — if you chose to, you could hide,” said Jones in an interview with the Forward. “But because of your skin color you couldn’t hide. So for Arnie it became a real point of understanding what it meant not to hide anything about himself. I believe that radicalized him and reflected everything that he did.”

In a 1984 Village Voice interview, Zane spoke about “Garden,” his dance-theater piece that juxtaposed stories of contemporary responsibility with images from the Holocaust. “My mother is from a Russian, Orthodox Jewish background,” said Zane. “The tragedy that that was and continues to be in the lives of those and all of us having been touched by it was something that concerned me. My parents were continually teaching me hatred for a great many nationalities in Europe. I was affected in that I was taught not to trust Polish people, not to trust German people.” (Jones remembers that Zane’s mother cried when the troupe departed on its first German tour.) “I was taught that as a Jew, I’d better keep my eyes open or I was going to get my ass kicked. And yeah, that sort of made me want to make this piece,” added Zane.

So 15 years after his death, what philosophical imprint of Zane’s remains with the company? Jones uses three words: “a creative irateness” — an outlook that laid the groundwork for “Secret Pastures,” a collaboration with Keith Haring, and the controversial “Still/Here,” made after Zane’s death but very much in Zane’s spirit. “Arnie was an iconoclast, effortlessly,” Jones told the Forward. “He took umbrage with the standards of beauty in the dance world. He was constantly questioning what he thought was false in terms of gender roles. He was an aesthete, but he was an aesthete who had his feet firmly rooted in pop culture.”

During the fall, the company will revive several of Zane’s memorable early works, including “Continuous Replay,” a work with riffs on 45 different arm gestures that echoes Zane’s background as a photographer. (The Paula Cooper Gallery in Manhattan will exhibit a retrospective of Zane’s photographs in January.) “The Gift/No God Logic,” a tightly knit piece for a quartet of dancers set to one of Verdi’s soapier operatic arias, reminds everyone that Zane laughed with a droll wit. But it is “Blauvelt Mountain (A Fiction),” a sparse structuralist duet with repetitive phrases and free-associative dialogue, that represents the perfect distillation of what Zane and Jones did best. The simple gestures, precise pedestrian movements and artful partnering of “Blauvelt Mountain” deliver a distinct emotional charge. The couple deemed it their favorite collaboration. “It was rigorously formal, quite austere, and yet inside of it you never doubted that there was some real relationship going on,” Jones said. “It was an expression of all the questions we had — we were reading each other moment to moment, giving each other signals, deepening an ongoing dialogue.” “Blauvelt Mountain” will be performed this season by alternating casts of two male couples and one female couple.

For Jones, the loss of Zane remains very present. “At moments like this, I miss some sort of clear-eyed sense of purpose as to how to organize these celebrations,” he said. “Arnie had an opinion about everything — the order of things, the casting, costuming. He was the architect and the captain. You wouldn’t have to turn to Arnie, because he’d already be telling me what he thought or we’d be fighting about it. He was by nature an organizer and a creative person.”

Jones insists that he never intentionally set out to make political work. Instead, he said, “I am trying to speak with a public voice about a personal experience.” But what he and Zane did together — the big guy sculpting space, the little one carving it — proved to be as politically potent as any choreography of the late 20th century. “People see us immediately as large and small, black and white, male and male,” said Zane in a 1981 interview. “But our relationship is not overstated. We’re simply two individuals. What I’d like an audience to see is any two men on the planet working together, cooperating, sharing, to bring an event or a task to fulfillment.” Given the contemporary state of events in the world, life might do well to imitate art.

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