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Provocative work opens MOT dance season

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

The Michigan Opera Theatre has long showcased renowned and groundbreaking dance companies, but Saturday’s performance by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company offers Detroit audiences something more provocative than past works.

“A Letter to My Nephew” is a music-and-dance driven study of the real life of a troubled dancer, Lance T. Briggs, who faced a promising career, but struggled with addiction. The story is told through a series of postcards sent home from his uncle — company co-founder Jones — in a multimedia experience, which includes dance, music and visual effects.

It’s the latest dance theater work of the Harlem-based dance company, founded in 1983 by Jones and Arnie Zane. The multidisciplinary company is considered one of the most influential in the dance-theater world.

“A Letter” is a darker, edgier work than most performances the Michigan Opera Theatre has presented in the past, said Kim Smith, the organization’s dance coordinator.

“Its themes of drug addiction and prejudice are presented within a larger, modern context and made more powerful through unique music, movement, and multimedia effects,” she said. “The work can be uncomfortable at times, but is incredibly thought-provoking and will stay with you long after the performance.”

The single performance Saturday marks the company’s Motor City debut and opens the 2018-19 dance series at the Detroit Opera House. It is the first in MOT’s dance series celebrating modern dance through generations of the movement. The series continues in March with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and concludes in April with the Martha Graham Dance Company.

“ ‘A Letter’ is a powerful work that will resonate with anyone who has struggled to overcome adversity or to assist someone in those circumstances,” said Stephen Lord, the Michigan Opera Theatre’s principal conductor.

Briggs was a scholarship student of the San Francisco Ballet whose bright future was derailed by his immersion in the club culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Briggs indulged in drugs and prostitution. He was diagnosed with AIDS and eventually became paraplegic.

“When I look at my dance company performing, I think of my nephew when he was at his best dancing,” Jones said, noting the club music of that era is incorporated into the work. “He was in his 20s then. Now he’s in his 40s. Most of the dancers are in their 20s. It’s interesting to look at him from that perspective.”

The nine dancers play a group of street characters, all of whom think of themselves like his nephew when he was living on the streets, Jones said. Briggs is portrayed laying on a hospital bed with visual images swirling around him like the evening news.

“He was a high-level dancer and did a lot of commercials, but he had a drug problem and became ill. When he was at his best, he had a wild life,” Jones said. “It had a lot to do with drugs and sex and being fabulous and being gay.”

Jones, who is a choreographer, author and dancer, describes the show as not only a portrait of the troubled life of his nephew, but also as a dialogue between generations, set against socio-political dynamics of location and country.

Performed in New York, Paris, Singapore, Boston and Macau, each iteration serves as snapshot of life in a specific place, incorporating references to local culture and customs and architecture as they related to world events.

And the performance in Detroit is no exception. The postcards are a swirl of images sent home to Briggs, with his uncle sharing casual conversation and raising questions, such as: Do you know about the riots in Detroit in 1967? Do you know Detroit had an important auto industry and that the city was destroyed but now is coming back?

“Everyone knows about Motown and Detroit going down and coming up, but we’re also all experiencing an election … we relate to place and to time and what’s happening across the country,” Jones said. “He and I are communicating across a generational gap, but also an educational gap. His is more pop culture. Mine is more historical or what have you.”

“A Letter” features Janet Wong’s haunting projections, composer Nick Hallett’s score and a live performance by baritone Matthew Gamble and Hallet.

Wherever “A Letter” has been performed, the staging has resonated with audiences. In Macau, for instance, Jones recalls there was a pronounced response among young audience members, who found the performance as an opportunity to talk about gay rights in a repressed country.

In Detroit, Jones is hoping the performance attracts a mixed audience, white, black, gay and straight, people from all walks of life, who will find something relevant in the story.

“I hope people are reminded once again what contemporary dance can be,” Jones said. “I hope they walk away with a new appreciation of the moment they are in and think of their own relationships with relatives and what it means to have an honest generational conversation. I hope they feel more in touch with the time they live in and the city of Detroit itself.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company

7:30 p.m. Saturday

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets $35-$100

(313) 237-7464


The event is presented in partnership with the University Musical Society.

Note: An Afterglow will be held after the performance in the Herman Frankel and Barbara Frankel Donor Lounge. Guests will have the opportunity to meet company dancers. The $35 admission includes drinks, a strolling buffet and DJ and dancing.