NEW YORK -- Bill T. Jones stands in the shadows, just offstage behind The Kitchen's swinging doors, watching his dancers perform the late Arnie Zane's 1981 "Cotillion."
A recording of Zane's voice, a matter-of-fact account of two recent dreams, trails off as Daniel Bernard Roumain's haunting, tender music stirs. Under Jones' steady gaze, the seven dancers execute lifts and turns, smiling at each other with obvious affection.
"It was a very bittersweet moment," the choreographer says the next morning over a late breakfast with his partner, sculptor Bjorn G. Amelan, who is also the associate artistic director of the dance company.
"It was a touching moment, with all sorts of reverberations."
Reverberations echoed throughout the opening night of "The Phantom Project," a look back at the collaborations of Jones and Zane to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Bill T. Jones-Arnie Zane Dance Company. The two-week retrospective took place at The Kitchen, a downtown performance space where the young duo made their New York debut. Many of the pieces, including "Cotillion," were originally performed there by Jones and Zane.
"When I see the first tape of 'Valley Cottage,' I can feel what his body and my body felt like doing it," says Jones, referring to a 1980 video of Jones and Zane performing "Valley Cottage," which also was shown opening night. "I can feel the psychic space between us ... maybe when I looked over that door, I was looking at time."
Time has been gracious to Jones. His speech is punctuated by long pauses, his gaze is direct and powerful. And at 51, he is still dancing, his elegant, muscular body still supple and sure. Watching him move, it is hard to believe he has been HIV positive since 1985 - three years before Zane died of AIDS-related illnesses, ending one of the most exciting and controversial collaborations in recent dance history.
The two met at Binghamton University in upstate New York in 1971. It was, as Jones has described it, "Bessie Smith meets Barbra Streisand."
Jones, the 10th of 12 children in a black Southern Baptist family, quickly became romantic and creative partners with Zane, a white Italian-American Jew from the Bronx. They integrated dance with language and Zane's photography, among other things.
In 1973, they re-established the American Dance Asylum with its original founder, Lois Welk, who practiced "contact improvisation" - a spontaneous form of modern dance in which partners react to each other's improvised movements instead of making already established moves.
Jones describes their early collaborations in Binghamton's ruined, former Elks' Club, in his 1995 biography, "Last Night on Earth." He writes about how they lived off "cornmeal pancakes smeared with peanut butter" and searched for new ways of moving.
Although "contact improvisation" appealed to the young dancers' developing sensibilities, Binghamton could not contain Jones and Zane for long. In 1980, drawn to the fertile New York City dance scene, the couple settled in Valley Cottage, a sleepy community up the Hudson River, 45 minutes from the city. They built their own company, influenced by the cool minimalism and repetition of such choreographers as Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs.
But they were also interested in heat - particularly Jones.
Author and longtime Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt remembers seeing Jones for the first time in 1977.
"He was beautiful. And fierce," she says. "In a period when dancers kept their faces neutral, his face - 'blazingly expressive,' I called it - took the audience aback."
The avant-garde dance world seemed unsure what to make of Jones and Zane, from the nervous laughter of the audiences to the critics who focused on their physical differences, describing them as "oil and water" and labeling homoerotic non-narrative, structural duets such as 1980's "Blauvelt Mountain (A Fiction)."
"I never really understood the label homoerotic," says Jones. "We were just who we were. But just being on stage together ... was a political thing that he and I didn't even know was there."
By now, Jones is used to labels. The New Yorker's dance critic, Arlene Croce, bestowed the label "victim art" after refusing to see Jones' 1994 meditation on illness and survival, "Still/Here." Croce claimed the work's incorporation of recorded testimony from ailing people made it unfit for review.
"The world tries to impose 'legibility' and 'simplicity.' You have to return with a generous, thoughtful, passionate complexity," says Jones, who is known to answer seemingly simple questions with paragraph-long chunks of thought. He also is sometimes criticized for choreographing overly long works.
But if there have been detractors, there also have been accolades, including three prestigious New York Dance and Performance Awards (Bessies), one with Zane and two others for solo work, a 1994 MacArthur Fellowship and commissions from such companies as Alvin Ailey and the Lyon Opera Ballet.
"I think he has a great integrity, both on and off the stage," says choreographer Brown, who adapted her solo, "If You Couldn't See Me," into "You Can See Us," a 1995 duet with Jones. "Everything about him was 100 percent on - his eyeballs, his float, his gestures. It was a really big experience for me."
"I remember Trisha saying he was like a missile coming out of a cannon, and that I attribute to a vibrancy and sexuality he brought back to postmodern dance," says choreographer and dancer Arthur Aviles, who danced with the company from 1987 to 1995, and who was romantically involved with Jones for much of that time.
Aviles joined the company as Zane's health was waning.
"Arnie's works were much more structural, more intellectual - not political, but focused on subverting certain ways of looking at dance that were happening at the time, which made it political," Aviles says. "I think Bill might have gotten a little more literal in his politics (after Zane died), and maybe a certain kind of romanticism slipped in."
This literal taking of politics found its voice in larger-scale, theatrical works such as 1990's "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," which caused no small amount of consternation with its religious and ethnic themes.
"In the unbelieving downtown it was certainly not good to bring a priest on stage," Jones reflects. "The religion and the racial aspects of it were very unsettling to people."
But Jones, who bristles when anyone tries to tell him what to do, has never silenced his beliefs.
His tenacity might be one reason why the 10-member company continues to do well at a time when many other small companies are struggling to stay afloat. Gone are the days of cornmeal and peanut butter; in 2001, the Bill T. Jones dancers began receiving health and retirement benefits, and the search continues for a permanent Harlem home.
For their part, the dancers express admiration for Jones' thoughtful, artistic approach to dance, and for his vitality. Catherine Cabeen has been with the company since 1998, after receiving her certificate of dance from the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.
"With Graham, there was a real sense of history, but we were always looking backward," Cabeen says. "To be there at a work's creation, working with someone who is so alive and still such an amazing dancer - it's a gift."
As the company moves forward, Jones does not want the man whose name remains half of the company to be viewed as "a little footnote."
"It's been a big weight - how to bring Arnie forward so he doesn't just become a reduction," Jones says. "It was a once in a lifetime partnership."
Still, Jones needed to organize "The Phantom Project" for himself as well.
Referring to the video of "Valley Cottage" that was included in the retrospective, he says quietly, "I wanted people to see what Arnie and I looked like dancing together.
"I needed to see it - to remember."
* * * *
The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will continue its 20th-anniversary season through the spring of 2004 with a national tour and select international appearances. In February, Jones will present four performances, including a premiere, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where a 1982 world premiere of "Intuitive Momentum," with drummer Max Roach, launched the company onto the international stage.
On the Net:
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company: www.billtjones.org
The Kitchen: www.thekitchen.org