A dance with "D-Man"


In the glory days of the Dallas Cowboys—the early 1990s—kids used to joke about how the team’s compact, unstoppable running back Emmitt Smith took ballet lessons in the off-season. It made theoretical sense, kind of, that studying movement would improve his footwork. But the thought that it was Smith’s moonlighting in Capezios and a tutu that allowed him to carry for 132 yards and two touchdowns (plus catching four passes for 26 yards) in Super Bowl XXVIII, was, for certain young men, a major source of cognitive dissonance.

The choreographer Bill T. Jones’ relationship with UVA began in 2008, when he spent a week staging a work with community members to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial. He returned last week for a series of classes and public rehearsals, and will be back in November for several events, including a performance of his classic “D-Man in the Waters” at the Paramount.

And for this writer it remained a bit confusing until I watched the Tony- and “Genius” grant-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones rehearse a portion of his 1989 contemporary dance piece, “D-Man in the Waters,” in the modest studio at UVA’s Memorial Gym. Jones, who wrote and choreographed Fela! on Broadway, was at UVA last week for the second of a three-part, year-long residency that will culminate in a November performance of “D-Man” at the Paramount Theater. Jones wrote the piece in 1989 when a member of his company, Demian Acquavella, or “D-Man” was suffering from AIDS. (During the residency, Jones also worked on “Story/Time,” a collaboration with UVA composer Ted Coffey.)

Far from gloomy, “D-Man” is an almost freakishly kinetic celebration, requiring athletic feats of its dancers that put a Super Bowl touchdown to shame. And in rehearsal it begs to be watched the way one watches a Nascar race: in anticipation of the inevitable moment when something goes horribly wrong. One dancer was taxed, her sweat visibly matting the back of her red sleeveless shirt, with each attempt at a dangerous move. Her task was to spring, stop short behind another dancer, jump, mount her feet on his lower back, and send herself flying, pencil-straight, into the arms of yet another dancer—who was standing next to a brick wall.

“You hesitated before you jumped,” Jones yelled after what must have been a fifth attempt. “Don’t.”

If the open rehearsal allowed the community to glimpse Jones’ creative process, there was a lot to take in. Soon his shirt was off, and even at 59 and “retired” from dancing, Jones is huge, as ripped as any professional football player. When instructing the company, he’s short on details and communicates more in grunts than in technical terms, leaving the task of remembering the specifics—is it two steps or three?—to Janet Wong, the spindly associate artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

More Vince Lombardi than Busby Berkeley, Jones leads the company with the blunt force of his charisma. Who knows what Smith would’ve done in Super Bowl XXVIII had he trained with Jones.

Front-line tragedy

If you’ve picked up the Virginia Quarterly Review in recent years, you know that its strengths lie in gathering in-depth, on-the-ground reporting from places where few others are willing to go. VQR contributor and recent Pulitzer Prize nominee Chris Hondros, who in recent years contributed pieces on Saddam Hussein’s foxhole and the earthquake in Haiti, died of injuries sustained during a mortar attack in Libya last week. Hondros was on assignment for Getty Images, covering the battle between militants and pro-Qaddafi forces. Editor Ted Genoways has a tribute to Hondros on the journal’s website.