Dance audience closely views portrayal of violence

Through the media, in courtrooms and in close communities, we are voyeurs examining the details of other people's lives.

So says Bill T. Jones in Chapel/Chapter, a new full-length dance his Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presented Tuesday night at the Annenberg Center's Zellerbach Theatre.

In this piece, the audience repeatedly sees and hears three real-life cases of violence - two high-profile crime stories and a childhood memory from Charles Scott, one of Jones' dancers.

Chapel/Chapter was performed in an intimate setting; 50 or so watched from pews on the stage, close enough to see beads of sweat on the dancers' foreheads, while the rest of the audience sat in traditional seating. With onlookers packed tightly in around the dancers, Jones aimed to create an instant community - a sort of courtroom, or chapel - where people would bear witness to the problems, without necessarily passing judgment.

But it is difficult not to react to such powerful stories, not to silently cheer when a criminal later walks across the stage in an orange jumpsuit. In a post-performance discussion, Jones admitted that he, too, became more emotionally involved in the stories than he had planned.

The story that hit home hardest was based on a murder trial that is being heard in New York this week: the case of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, whose stepfather is charged with neglecting, starving and beating her to death. It hauntingly evoked the Jackson children in Collingswood, who were starved by their adopted parents, and the unnoticed abuse cases among DHS client families in Philadelphia.

Most heartbreaking was Maija Garcia's dancing the role of the playful child - running, jumping, playing hand games while her stepfather calmly described how he duct-taped her to a chair and left her a cat-litter box to use as a toilet.

Another touching performance was Erick Montes as the pet dog in the story of a family of four murdered in the 1970s. He pranced, leapt, howled and deftly moved across the stage on all fours, helplessly watching as his people drew their last breaths.

Montes also danced the role of Cameron, the childhood friend of Charles Scott's who brought young Charles with him to the top of a waterfall, then jumped to his death. Montes and Scott danced a duet of slow, parallel stretches and contractions, many while lying head-to-head on the floor. Near the piece's end, Scott reached out to try to save his friend, something he wasn't able to do in real life.

A video played on a grid on the red curtain backdrop throughout the piece, and was repeated on a similar grid on the floor: butterflies flying over a hopscotch board, a map of where the family's murder took place, flashes of bright color, and a globe moving closer and farther away, pulling us in and out of the tales.

Although the stories were tragic, the movement remained upbeat, and the 70-minute piece was thought-provoking without being overly gloomy.

Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at

No future performances.