Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company makes powerful Savannah debut

Play and Play: An Evening of Movement and Music” by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company thrilled the audience last night in the lush, gorgeous Lucas Theatre.

Even with two weeks left for the Savannah Music Festival, it’s safe to say that last night’s show will be remembered as a highlight of the 18-day event. It’s been a while since the SMF has so aggressively taken on dance, and the festival sure aimed for the top this year. Play and Play opens at New York City’s Joyce Theater on Tuesday for a two-week run.

And it’s a pretty safe bet that Play and Play was the best modern dance performance ever seen in Savannah. But more on that in a moment.

The first half of last night’s program was the new piece “Story/”, which will be making its NY premiere at the Joyce.

The Dover Quartet was on stage with the performers — even standing amidst them when the lights came on. But as the musicians found their seats, the nine-member company began a series of athletic, graceful, powerful, tender movements — a combination that has brought choreographer Jones deserved acclaim over his storied career. (Janet Wong and the Company are also credited for choreography.)

There was a beautiful starkness to the Lucas stage for “Story/” — with some bright white lights shooting straight down and the side curtains pulled so that anyone seated close to the stage could see easily into the wings. The dancers wore cool colors — workout clothes they seemed. The music was Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor — Death and the Maiden.

The company was joined by a singular symbolic prop — a green apple. Jones previously used green apples in “Story/Time”.

Never bitten into and occasionally treated with particular reverence, as when one of the female dancers — suddenly clad in a red dress — holds it up as if in offering, the green apple suggested something chaste, innocent, restrained — something of great promise that hasn’t quite revealed itself.

“Story/” contains some striking passages, especially one in which two male dancers — one much taller than the other — engage in a sort of romantic, competitive play. The New York Live Arts site notes that this piece is part of an ongoing project “using indeterminacy as a choreographic tool”, but nothing here felt random, sudden, or forced. At times the dancers’ pace matched or even exceeded the racing strings, but some of the most effective moments came when the dancers moved as if in slow motion as the tempo was at its fastest.

The eight members of ensemble39 were in the orchestra pit for “D-Man in the Waters”, but the Lucas doesn’t really have a “pit” — just an area on the floor in front of the stage. I suppose some might have found it distracting to have the musicians between them and the action, but I found the effect thrilling even though my vision of the stage was slightly obscured by a violinist who was occasionally playing so fast that he seemed about to leap from his seat.

The music was Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20 — a rousing piece with furious climax.

From the NYT review of the 1989 premiere of “D-Man in the Waters”:

Rarely has one seen a dance company throw itself onto the stage with such kinetic exaltation. The performers come in all shapes and sizes, they are dressed in an anthology of greenish body gear from combat fatigues to bathing suits and they thrash around the metaphorical waters of Mr. Jones’s quirky mind-set with athletic rapture. Danced surprisingly but felicitously to a live performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E, ”D-Man” is the kind of piece that sets audiences cheering.

For this iteration, the dancers all wore some sort of army fatigues, an enforced conformity quite different than the original — although one pair of short shorts seemed more Village People than basic training. There were some light, even funny moments amidst the towering jumps and throws. At various moments, the dancers seemed about to feel the full power of gravity only to be suddenly buoyed by the music, another dancer’s arms, or some sudden emotion.

Even though the piece was originally created in tribute to dancer Demian Acquavella’s battle with AIDS, seeing it on the 10-year anniversary of the war in Iraq evoked the emotional landscape of an even more brutal form of combat. Not to say that the piece is depressing — it’s triumphal.

As it built toward its stirring, communal final moment, “D-Man in the Waters” kept reuniting the two tallest male dancers in a series of athletic and tender interactions. Each time they would be separated by the blur and chaos of the other dancers, they would come together again.

The Savannah Music Festival programmed some amazing ballet with live musicians on stage about a decade ago. And the festival has produced dance as part of various Indian and African programs — and there’s been some tap too. But this is the first time the SMF has served up modern dance.

And Savannahians have had other chances to see great modern dance — like Alvin Ailey a few years ago at the Savannah Black Heritage Festival. But even that event was subordinated to the broader festival, plus it was in the Johnny Mercer Theatre, a pretty lousy venue for dance.

The Lucas Theatre was certainly in no danger of selling out last night, but the audience was of respectable size — and wildly enthusiastic.

Let’s hope Savannah audiences will have future chances to see modern dance performances that are even close to the calibre of last night’s show.