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Bill T. Jones’s ‘Letter’ is a powerful testament

A scene from “A Letter to My Nephew.”
A scene from “A Letter to My Nephew.”(Liza Voll Photography)

The title of Bill T. Jones’s new dance might strike you as anachronistic: “A Letter to My Nephew.” Who even writes letters anymore? But what began as the choreographer’s effort to stay in touch with his critically ill nephew, Lance T. Briggs, while touring Paris became much more.

The piece, which had its US premiere Friday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is at once a personal tribute and a socio-political commentary — an unflinching look at the forces that shaped Briggs, and by extension other young black men, wrapped in a missive of love.

That missive is both multifaceted and in-the-moment. Jones calls the piece “site specific,” that is, elements particular to the venue at hand filter through the video clips, spoken words, music — live blues, instrumental, and house — and the dancing of the eight members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company like dust motes in sunlight.

Here, two days after the presidential election that stunned so many, images of the Paul Revere statue in the North End, of protests, and of the haunting words “Did you vote?” bring home Jones’s message: Life is fragile, hope perseveres, dignity endures.

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That message is communicated, collage-like, through the story of Briggs. Now in his 40s, he was a super-talented boy offered a scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School, a model who descended into drugs, prostitution, and finally an illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Jones constructs the parable elegantly via a meeting of mind, body, and resonant objects.

The movement is a confluence of hip-hop, house, classical ballet, and vibrating, idiosyncratic gestures: a licked finger gives way to pressed palms in prayer here, arms twist into hieroglyphs there, shuddering thighs splinter the air. It springs as much from the eclectic score — composed by Nick Hallett and performed by Hallett, Matthew Gamble, and DJTonyMonkey — as from each dancer’s gut. Clad primarily in hoodies and sweats — some dark, some white — the dancers are as much reflections of Briggs as of inner-city youth. Indeed, they recall all of us as ricocheting figures in a world full of turmoil but also of the beauty that comes from human connection.

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The action takes place on a floor marked as a crosswalk — or perhaps it’s a crossroads. Depending on the dynamics at play, the space morphs from a violent street fight to a fashion runway with a glorious man in white save red socks strutting in relevé-as-stilettos. Given the events of the week and Jones’s aim to incorporate them, I couldn’t help but flash on the pictures flooding social media of voters in long lines, including a man in high heels patiently waiting his turn.

The objects include a spare hospital bed that shifts position on stage, poles that at one point become a cross borne on a dancer’s back (the symbolism here is a bit heavy-handed), and a white pallet — a bare slate — that groups in turn spin or hold overhead, form tableau against, and angle atop a resting figure’s raised arm to reveal projected words that provoke or question. A man’s voice counts methodically to 45: Could that be a nod to the 45th presidency?

“A Letter to My Nephew” is a powerful testament but, alas, it goes on too long. At about two-thirds of the way though, you may find yourself in tears, but its repetitious nature soon quells the emotion. With some judicious editing, this anguished-cry cum love letter could be a knockout.

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Dance review

BILL T. JONES/ARNIE ZANE COMPANY

“A Letter to My Nephew”; Friday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.


Thea Singer can be reached at thea.singer@comcast.net.

An earlier version misidentified the score’s composer.