Communities of gesture

Empathy and embodiment in Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s 100 Migrations

Authored by: Ariel Nereson

The Routledge Companion to Theatre, Performance, and Cognitive Science

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138048898
eBook ISBN: 9781315169927
Adobe ISBN:


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November 2008 was a historic month in the U.S.A., seeing the election of the nation’s first African-American President, Barack Obama. At the University of Virginia, on a campus built by enslaved people belonging to another American president, Thomas Jefferson, work began on a new dance meant to respond to this legacy and comment on the approaching 2009 bicentennial of the birth of yet another president, Abraham Lincoln. In the heady post-election days filled with a hope promised by Obama in his acceptance speech (Obama 2009, 224), the choreographer Bill T. Jones and his company developed a community-based work, 100 Migrations, that shared this campaign rhetoric: ‘It’s about a climate of hope wherein we conjure up the means to save ourselves’ (Jones 2008a, n.p.). Jones places responsibility for change on the performers and spectators involved with 100 Migrations, eschewing a top-down process of reform and renewal. 100 Migrations, involving 90 community members and 10 company dancers, models one such horizontal process, addressing the legacy of a cultural icon whose very name invokes notions of community and its particular formation in democracy. Democratic ideals of freedom and equality (those frequently associated with Lincoln) often feel utopian given the daily lived realities of many Americans, and Jones’s scepticism of their achievement via Obama’s election leads him to focus on performance, not policy, as the base of possible grass-roots activism. Explaining his desire to work with local community, Jones stated, ‘I thought that the question of Lincoln was very much a question of being a part of a society and that everybody who considers themselves an American must have the DNA of that man who we call the greatest president who ever lived. So I wanted to know what that looks like, democracy moving’ (100 Migrations). Jones’s concept of ‘democracy moving’ asks what it is to move and be moved, engaging the double meaning, kinaesthetic and affective, of ‘to move,’ a double meaning grounded in the body.

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