From the moment that four musicians enter from the aisles dressed in bright orange shirts that echo prison garb, and then the icon of the dance world himself, Bill T. Jones, walks elegantly (albeit with a cane due to a leg injury) to take his position in front of the stage of the Granada, it’s clear that What Problem? — presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures on November 15 — is not going to be a typical dance performance.
Weaving contemporary dance, live music and Jones’s readings of excerpts from powerful texts — including W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Kendrick Lamar’s “Never Catch Me,” and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick — into a social, political, and spiritual exploration of the world we now live in, it’s heartening to see that after 40 years of creating new works, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company is still innovating.
As a choreographer, Jones is a master of moving bodies on stage like sculptural compositions. One of my favorite and most indelible images was a beautiful mass of dancers rolling on the floor creating undulating shapes that mimicked the movement of waves in Moby-Dick.
With each touring location for What Problem?, the company develops content with local community members to create performances that bring home the themes and messages exploring the intersection of race, sex and sexual politics, gender, immigration, class struggles, and self in relationship to community.
The Santa Barbara production’s local participants, encompassing a wide variety of ages, walks of life, and performance experiences, included Sophia Ben-Achour, Samuelle Bourgault, Rebecca Brown, Bijou Douglas, Mariangelica Duque, Devon Frost, Miyuki Hamai, Mindy Horwitz, Sophia Jeffe, Kara Le, Amanda Lizarraga, Meredith Lyons, Frances Manthorpe, Linn Molin, Ellen Pasternack, Ana Schreck, Chris Sellgren, Grace Slansky, Mariah Slechter, Ahlora Smith, Julianna Swille, Jenna Tico, and Estefani Zuniga.
The final, spoken word portion of the production was an Intentionally jarring component of an otherwise tightly woven symphony. Multiple microphones were placed on the stage and one by one, the assembly of dancers (both the professional company and the community members), took their turns at the mic to give testimony on what they believe (using “I know statements”) about themselves, the world, and issues of race, equality, politics and more.
I don’t know that the final statement (something along the lines of “I know that Donald Trump belongs in jail, not on the ballot,”) was exactly the right sentiment to end such a powerful night of performance on, but I do know that What Problem? is not a show I’ll soon forget.