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Jones’ ‘Chapel’ seeks sense behind headlines

Erin Pelikhov

“Chapel/Chapter” — the latest work by African American choreographer Bill T. Jones, which had its Boston premiere last night at the Institute of Contemporary Art and runs through Feb. 16 — is what you might call a physical research project.
The assignment is two-fold: examine the connection between the masses and the media, and determine how media viewers relate to, and attempt to make sense of, the often confusing and troubling stories they see in the daily news.

This sort of social commentary is nothing new for the New York City-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which last year celebrated a quarter-century as one of the most innovative and respected outfits in contemporary dance.

Over the past 25 years, the company has presented works like 1990’s “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,” which used the physical medium to examine traditional attitudes toward race, sexuality and fear, and the recent touring piece “Blind Date,” a meditation on foundational American ideals like patriotism, honor and service that John Rockwell of The New York Times called “a source of both deeply considered drama and visceral dance excitement.”

In “Chapel/Chapter,” Jones and company use dance to retell and explore three stories: a man’s murder of a family of four; a father’s killing of his daughter; and an 11-year-old boy’s failed attempt to prevent his friend from committing suicide, an incident that involved a member of Jones’ company (a Boston Globe piece published last week identified the company member as Charles Scott).

Pieces of the three individual “chapters” repeat throughout the show, creating a sort of conversation between the stories. Through that dialogue, Jones intends to start an investigation into how people create intellectual and emotional distance between themselves and what he calls “the disturbing, sometimes incomprehensible ‘news items’ we encounter every day.”

What separates this latest piece from many contemporary dances by other performing companies is its use of the set and musical accompaniment. The floor is laid out like the grid of a large stained-glass window in a cathedral, an irregular structure contributing to and influencing the portrayal of the dancers’ movements. Live music by Haitian American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, a combination of madrigals, folk songs and plainsong chant, and stark videography create an encompassing atmosphere in which the “conversation” takes place.

These experimental techniques combine for a unique experience at the new Institute of Contemporary Art’s auditorium-like theater. Unlike classic proscenium-arch theaters, in which much of the audience has to look up to or level with the stage, the ICA’s stadium seating allows audience members to actually look down onto the stage, providing a clear view of the grid-like floor and its impact on the work. For a production as cutting edge — both technically and theoretically — as “Chapel/Chapter,” the ICA provides the perfect venue.

“Chapel/Chapter” plays through Feb. 16 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Avenue, Boston. Tickets cost $50 for reserved seating; $40 for members, students and seniors. For show times and ticket availability, call 617-478-3103 or visit www.icaboston.org.

For more information on the production and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, visit www.billtjones.org.