Emma Barber on Justin Jones – “Loop, Loop”

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Sitting down in the proscenium theater of the Rarig Center, I feel sensations of anxiety, nostalgia, and excitement run through me. University Dance Theater (UDT) happens every year and is a major event in the University’s dance program, and as a recent graduate this is my first year in four sitting in the audience. UDT is something that’s talked about all year and is the largest production of three that the dance program puts on. Thanks to the generous Cowles Land Grant Initiative, the University has been able to bring in world-renowned choreographers over the years who re-stage esteemed works or set new pieces. This year all four choreographers – Justin Jones (MPLS), Maurya Kerr (SF), Gregory Dolbashian (NY), and Scott Rink (NY/MPLS) have created new works – and I know the students are thrilled to not have to learn from watching a VHS video and strive to look like the “original cast.” New work (hopefully) means there are opportunities for creative dialogue between choreographer and dancer, reevaluations of virtuosity and aesthetics, and a less hierarchical dissemination of knowledge and validation.

Justin Jones’ piece “Loop, Loop” is a perfect example of all of these things. With a cast of 17 and two weeks of rehearsal to create the piece, Justin was smart in asking the dancers for choreographic input and spatial design (I learned this from the talk-back after an informal showing of the work earlier this fall.) The entire stage is filled – the dancers are evenly dispersed and there are strings dangling from the ceiling which are shimmering blue, green, and purple to match the watercolor costumes of the dancers. Some of the dancers move continuously and quickly, their bodies drawing circles and spirals, going under, over, in, and through imaginary geometrical shapes that they have drawn in space. Frequently the dancers link hands with each other and pause, and with the stillness my eyes are handed agency to look wherever I want with a no-place-is-the-wrong-place kind of curiosity. The entire space is engaged, negative space between dancers reveals energy between them, and the warm light makes me feel engulfed and welcomed.

The dancers are extremely soft and supple and the silence makes it even more evident how they are able to control their bodies and work with gravity to melt their feet into the floor. This is a sign of their intense training and virtuosity put to a new use – this is not “traditional” technique but it is without a doubt chock full of articulation, consideration, kinesthetic intelligence, and artistry. Even first-year students move with this sort of quality and I am impressed with the directions given by Jones and subsequent rehearsal directors and the commitment of the dancers.

Trios hold hands as they step over and under and in and through again each other with an ease that makes me believe they know exactly what they are doing. I write “twist ties, rubberbands, noodles” as an attempt to put words to how they move. The title represents both the movement patterns of the dancers and the patterns in space that they make. The movement, formations in space, hand holding, and quality with which the dancers move lightly reference European social dances of old, including ballet. Maybe this is Jones’ nod to an institutionalized notion of virtuosity which is then deconstructed and abstracted, or maybe it’s a by-product of the choreographic task to stay connected at the hands and move through each other in a fluid and agile way.

The collaborative effort present in this dance is something I appreciate, and believe it is of Jones’ priority in his choreography as well. “Loop, Loop” is in some way a democratized dance – we see everyone and choreographically no one person seems to take more attention than others, and Jones as choreographer is an instigator for design rather than an autocrat of aesthetics. At first viewing these things might not be apparent, but my own institutionalized dance education at the University of Minnesota has made me extremely aware of the power dynamics between choreographer and dancer. Jones’ process, unlike a decent number of choreographic processes (especially in Universities or conservatories), gives value to the dancer and the dancers intelligence from inside the piece and the result is a ‘good-feeling’ dance. I am elated to watch this piece and feel confident that the social relations of the makers and the doers were negotiated into a situation where everyone felt comfortable and represented.

The multi-colored space-filler strings begin to lift away as three dancers hold hands and tangle and untangle while moving around each other. The metronome that has been ticking since half-way through the piece fills the space in a way that reminds me of how huge it is, and it makes me appreciate even more the way the space was filled just moments earlier. The lights dim and the only color left is that on the costumes of the three dancers. They all stop simultaneously, and a dancer runs from off stage to grab the metronome and quickly run back off.

As “Loop, Loop” finished and I waited for the next one to begin, I thought that this dance is perhaps more politically relevant because of what it is not. Jones is not a dictating authority that commands students to fulfill his choreographic dreams in an un-negotiable relationship. It is not a piece that emphasizes “standard” virtuosity but rather challenges it while referencing it and makes a new kind. It is not furthering a narrative or imposing a methodology on the viewer. And for that it is a very smart work, critically engaging with the institution in which it has been commissioned and performed. I’m a proud alumna and a big fan of Justin Jones.

Emma Barber

Justin Jones, “Loop, Loop”

University Dance Theater, Rarig Theater Proscenium Stage

December 7th, 2014

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