If you live, or were in, Europe on November 13th 2015, it is likely you just had a reaction to reading that date. That night, in Paris, people watching a concert became victims of a terrorist attack. It was also the night that choreographer Bill T. Jones premiered his work, A Letter to my Nephew, in the same city. The work was created to address the political climate of its moment; seen through the eyes of an individual life and its struggles; told from the perspective of a loving uncle and what he imagined those struggles to be. As the dancers performed the work on its premier night, people at the Bataclan experienced their worst nightmare imaginable.
Calling the work a “letter” seemed fitting in the sense that letters are fragile things, beautifully, artfully, or straightforwardly written, sent into the world, the writer not knowing when or how their words were received. Here it was, to his nephew originally, but to the world at its core; conscious of a much wider audience than just family from the moment it was conceived. Relevance had brought it to the stage; events unfolding would immortalize a single happenstance that was anything but happy. When it came to Brooklyn, to the Academy of Music where I saw it, it carried the weight of that night within it.
The introduction and the constantly flashing news headlines in the background of the stage, are written anew for each performance in each new city; a clear tell tale that this work was envisioned for our present era, none other. The introduction is spoken before the dancers ever take to the stage. The flashing snippets of text interspersed during the dancing are ever reminding us of that flashing extra! extra! breaking! that television made us conscious to. It keeps us alert at all times, as if something absolutely awful may just be around the corner and we should protect ourselves – though we are never told how. Keeping us living in fear has done more for politicians in the politicking and policing of the world than a solution-based approach ever could. Fear also sells, thus making it the ideal state for a capitalist world.
There are lines on stage. Lines that resemble street corners in every city, everywhere, ever. The lines we call sidewalks or roads. The lines we use to define our living space in order to co-exist with each other. These dancers walk and twirl and interact as they pass us. It’s important that motion is irresistible, that motion is perpetual, that motion is the only way. It literally moves the economy, those numbers, those goods from shelves move into our homes, and from our homes, into dumpsters. Mr. Jones knows this.
He also knows this is a world where Travyon Martin was shot by a man who would likely go free. This is a world where in America a seventeen-year-old wearing a hoodie has no real right to walk along a sidewalk in the state of Florida. Bill T. Jones knows this is a world where you fly your company to Paris to premiere a work you’ve just conceived and choreographed and said work is literally welcomed with a terrorist attack next door. This is a world where you envision the life your nephew may have lived or continues to. A life emboldened by the multitude of open doors given to an attractive young dancer who acts like a rockstar. A life lived in excess, nearly one too many, and thus continued to be told from a hospital bed. Mr. Jones told his nephew to continue to write his own story and sing his songs from said bed, no matter what happened, come what may. Mr. Jones was all the while writing a letter to his nephew, while hoping to speak to us too.
Back to the street corners of the stage, the music is sparse and being made right before our eyes. We see the musicians stage left, and know that they create the soundscape to this methodical madness. A large, square of white cardboard is brought out, held by dancers, so that the letter may be typed out for us to read. While it is addressed to the nephew, we know and it knows we all came here to read it. Its awareness of itself takes nothing from it, in fact, it adds to the concept by reminding us of our participation in an ever-photographed, on-display living of life in 2017. Here we are, living to let others see it; here it is, writing to let all of us read it. The piece of cardboard is also representative of the hospital bed, where Jones’ nephew spent a number of his days. At this point, swinging the cardboard above their heads and in front of themselves, the dancers start counting. What it is that they are numbering we don’t know to begin with. As I sit and listen to the numbers grow, I know it is purposeful. .After about twenty seconds, they stop counting, at forty five… Oh. Forty five. That number. People move in their seats. The dancers stare, seeing nothing. People start crying. People start laughing. Something is happening here, Mr. Jones decided to tell us exactly how he feels about the electoral-college-elected forty-fifth president of the United States. The choreographer has chosen, at least tonight, at least in Brooklyn , to write his letter including what it means to live under 45. Not a word of hate, or reprimand, nor the president’s name, not any of it needed. All we needed was moving bodies counting and stopping right when they did.
The dancing moves through contemporary phrases that at times feel tired, to hip hop moves executed by dancers who are clearly classically trained. No matter. A choreographer like Bill T. Jones, with a body of work so solid and extensive has the right to present a piece of work that works on a macro level more than it does in the details. The phrasing isn’t all that matters, or frankly that important when the vocabulary we came to read is one in the English language. Or the French language that of two years ago. Or any language, of any place, this piece has been taken to. The choreographic vocabulary isn’t here to tell us what’s happening, it’s here instead to enhance our emotional connection to the subject matter. That, it does. Presented with phrases like “do you know that I don’t feel like an American?” When the letter asks you if you know that there is an African-American national anthem, and, well, you didn’t – you feel that dancing in your bones.
After the struggle is laid out, and a visibly and audibly uncomfortable audience is felt all around, the work begins to resolve. It begins to ascend after the pulling and pushing and fighting between characters, which each of these dancers are. The fighting they do onstage is as real as stage-fighting can be. The fighting they do onstage isn’t a stand-in for something in particular. The fighting they do onstage is just anger. It’s angry. It’s out of sorts. It’s enraged. It’s scared and ludicrous. It’s of this time; and though it serves no purpose, it is absolutely necessary. The letter moves on. It asks us to continue to fight. It asks us to keep on going every single day no matter how much it takes from us. It says that he will, and so should his nephew, and certainly every person who came to read this work.
The audience is left with a sense of hope. Not like the hope that comes from the pumped-up rock stardom of arena concerts or the brilliance of a symphonic hall, but a hope that we need. The same hope that recovered his nephew. The same hope that we shared under President number forty-five, that guy, the hope and change guy. We are left with a message clearly relaid, and that is, that we must continue to do the work – no matter how justifiably angry and lonely we each may feel.
Image: courtesy of Bill T. Jonea and BAM