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Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

'A Quarreling Pair'

by Carmel Morgan

March 25, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC

Almost a year after the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presented “Chapel/Chapter” at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, the company returned to the DC area with “A Quarreling Pair.”  In contrast to the serious social issues at the forefront of “Chapel/Chapter,” “A Quarreling Pair” provides humor in abundance.  Yet “A Quarreling Pair” also has the thought-provoking, touching impact one expects from Jones, who conceived and directed the piece.

Many artists play a role in the charming and challenging “A Quarreling Pair.”  The work is based, in part, on a puppet play by Jane Bowles.  Jones added original text.  The choreography is credited to Jones; Janet Wong, the company’s associate artistic director; and the company members themselves.  Most of the music is original, composed and arranged by three colorful musicians: Wynne Bennett, Christopher Antonio William Lancaster, and George Lewis, Jr., who play live during the performance.  The décor by Bjorn G. Amelan, lighting design by Robert Wierzel, costume design by Liz Prince, video by Janet Wong, and sound design by Sam Crawford all contribute significantly to the work’s appeal.

Above all, one must recognize the brilliance of Tracy Ann Johnson, who is not a company member but holds her own on the stage with them.  Johnson, an actor and voice-over professional, was “discovered” by Janet Wong at a monologue slam in New York City.  Wow, what a discovery she is!  Johnson, as the voice of feuding sisters Miss Harriet and Miss Rhoda, is completely absorbing.  When, as Miss Rhoda, Johnson wears a canary yellow gown and belts out “History Repeating,” we wish she wasn’t interrupted by a cell phone call from her sister.

A phone call in the middle of her song?  Yes, “A Quarreling Pair” is full of surprises, which is one reason the work is so much fun.  There’s a lot going on in “A Quarreling Pair,” and at times it’s hard to keep up with the plot.  The performance features a story about squabbling siblings, but it’s also a Vaudevillian show.  A woman (Asli Bulbul) pulls unusual objects from under her skirt (including a banana, a plastic chicken, and a gun).  Life-sized shadow puppets (Leah Cox and Paul Matteson, with voices by Johnson) bicker using stilted language.  Women in tall shiny boots and matching black coats (Majia Garcia and Shayla-Vie Jenkins) do sexy tricks with cigarettes.  Two men in neon-colored dog-eared hats and pants (Antonio Brown and Matteson) combine martial arts with wrestling, dog fighting, break dancing, and electrocution-like convulsions to create “mystical mayhem.”  A cross-dressing Mexican diva (Erick Montes) abuses poor Miss Rhoda.  An emcee (George Lewis, Jr.) in plaid plays funky, bluesy, folksy music and sometimes hops onto the stage.  A duo in tight white briefs, sport socks, and goggles (Peter Chamberlin and Montes) clowns around.  And the list goes on and on.  Songs and video clips are interspersed throughout.  Most performances that incorporate this degree of variety are disasters, but under Jones’s skilled direction, the music, text, movement, and everything else come together seamlessly.

Amidst all of the Vaudevillian antics “A Quarreling Pair” does offer some brief sections of more traditional modern dancing.  Toward the end of the work, Miss Harriet has a dream, and the dancers in her dream, all clad in white, are lovely.  In a tender duet, a woman suddenly slips between her male partner’s legs and slides though them.  In a section named after Bob Dylan’s song, “Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” dancers wearing smoky blue/gray sweatshirts pace mournfully in simple triplet steps.  Their chests are lifted, their backs are straight, their arms rest at their sides, and their lengthened legs move elegantly down, up, up across the floor.  Sometimes a group goes backward as if they were being pushed by an invisible magnet.

Dance fans might be disappointed that there is not more outright dancing, as the company’s performers are quite capable dancers, but anyone who loves the arts should be able to appreciate the work as an overall entertainment experience.  There are probably not many professional dance companies in which the dancers sing on stage, and for good reason.  Here, the vocal performances by company members I-Ling Liu and Montes are terrific, and the acting ability of the rest of the company members is also top notch.  “A Quarreling Pair” has plenty of silliness, but in the end, the work feels like a poignant exploration of relationship rifts, failed aspirations, and the passage of time.

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