Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 23, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Bill T. Jones: Dancing an Talking
Beauty is back. What began in the late ’80s as a
hum in the American arts landscape has become an incontrovertible
buzzword. But for dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, beauty has
been a constant companion. Over the course of his challenging,
and invariably provocative career, the beautiful man has given life
to many achingly — sometimes heartbreakingly — beautiful
One of these works, "D-Man in the Waters," a dance created
in 1989 that became a tribute to company member Damien Acquavella,
has kept its head above water throughout the vagaries of funding and
tours. Now, in a collaborative program that features the Bill T.
Zane Dance Company with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center,
Jones is taking the opportunity to present beautiful work to the real
sounds of Felix Mendelssohn’s glorious score, the "Octet in E
Jones’ spring concert program is performed to music played by the
Orion String Quartet and members of the Chamber Music Society of
Center. It premieres at the University of Iowa on January 25, and
comes to McCarter Theater on Tuesday, January 29. Next comes a
engagement at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and from there the
company begins a month-long nationwide tour that takes it from
to Washington’s Kennedy Center, to the West Coast and U.C.L.A.
Featured at McCarter are two of three new group works Jones has
during the past year as part of the Chamber Music Society
"Verbum" for eight dancers is set to Beethoven’s String
in F Major, Op. 135, the last he wrote. In it, Jones explores the
potential of physical movement to match Beethoven’s rigorous use of
form — which seems to express a yearning for spiritual
"Worldwithout/in," for 10 dancers, is set to two pieces by
contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag — String Quartet,
Op. 1, and "Twelve Microludes," Op. 13 — music that is
by turns introverted, abrasive, and sensual. Eccentrically episodic
in structure, with some movements lasting a fleeting 20 seconds,
music suggests a series of vivid sound portraits that sparked a poetic
and theatrical response from Jones. Making use of masks and a flight
of magically lighted stairs, he describes "Worldwithout/in"
as "a kind of fairy tale offering a distant mirror of the world
we live in."
Jones and his 10-member company have been long-time and regular
to McCarter Theater. In a telephone interview from his home in the
Hudson River Valley, which he shares with his companion Bjorn Amelan
(the company’s associate artistic director who designed the stage
settings for this season’s new works), Jones looked forward to
to Princeton with brand new work and talked about making and speaking
about art before and after September 11. Jones’s long history of
provocation may have peaked in 1994 when his major concert evening,
"Still/Here," was condemned, sight unseen, by New Yorker dance
critic Arlene Croce. The resulting outcry placed Jones at the eye
of a storm of national controversy and debate on the role of art.
Since that time he has become one of the more eloquent voices for
dance on the national landscape.
Last year, in April, Jones capitalized on his powers
as a speaker and thinker when he presented a public lecture at
University, "The Body: A Gateway and Two Doors" (April 12,
2001). Using song, texts, and film excerpts from his work, Jones
the body as a contested site in the ongoing "culture wars;"
as a site of controversy; and as an instrument of protest. He also
asked, rhetorically, a question that now seems prescient: "Does
art encourage us to be brave and resourceful?" In his lecture,
Jones also expressed his desire, as an artist, to "unite the
of this life."
"Dance is a medium through which all the questions of existence
can at least be posed," he told the Princeton audience, adding:
"Art, for me, is the pursuit of the elusive quality —
On September 20, Jones was a guest on Bill Moyers’ PBS television
special, addressing American artists’ response to the national trauma.
"The great artist Agnes Martin says when a rose dies, beauty does
not die, because beauty is not the rose. Where is beauty? Where is
this love? If the object dies, what will you do with that love?,"
he told Moyers and his audience.
The creation and development of this season’s new dances took place
at the Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem during 13 weeks of rehearsal in
the summer and fall of 2001. Thus, Jones’ company, which functions
much like a family, shared the shattering experience of September
"The closest we came to a casualty," explains Jones, "we
had one Taiwanese dancer who had just left his lawyer’s office about
one block from Tower One just before it was hit." The dancer is
fine, he adds, but the climate for the foreign company members has
"The three new members we hired have been struggling to get visas,
they include a dancer from Turkey, who (fortunately) happens to be
a young woman. The dancers were all promised visas before September
11, but now they are being held up or ignored. We pride ourselves
on being an international and a diverse company, so this has made
our work more difficult."
Jones says the fact that he and his dancers were in the midst of
new work on September 11, "gave focus to my life." The company
of young dancers, many in their 20s, was helped by the anchor of the
ongoing work as well.
"I think they were grateful for the focus and pull of the dances
we were working on," he says. "The dancers are resilient,
but they’re baffled as well. And questions about the cultural life
of this country only add to their bafflement. But they are also so
vulnerable. Their income, health care, can be snatched away from them
at any time."
Are we different? I ask Jones, four months after the
fact. It’s a question that has become all too familiar.
"The company was due to travel to Switzerland on September 13
and 14, and we had to cancel. But when we eventually did arrive,
had the same question, `How have we changed?’
"I don’t think people change that fast. For a brief moment there,
I think we were thinking differently. But I think that now, more and
more, this thinking seems to be receding into the background, with
the new political scandals and such. I’m not proud of this."
Jones’ biography is as remarkable as his impact on American arts.
Both his mother, Estella Jones, and his sister, Rhodessa Jones, have
collaborated on his works. He is the recipient of a 1994 MacArthur
"genius" award. His no-holds-barred memoir of his personal
and performing life, titled "Last Night on Earth," written
with Peggy Gillespie, was published in 1995. Now approaching 50, Jones
was born the tenth of twelve children, in a migrant worker’s family,
and spent his early years traveling the East Coast, from Florida to
Maine, with his parents, as they followed the crop seasons. When he
was seven, the family settled in upstate New York where he graduated
from the predominantly white Wayland Central High School.
A track star, Jones was also interested in drama, musical theater,
and social dance. He counts the 1961 movie adaptation of "West
Side Story", choreographed by Jerome Robbins, as a formative
a moment that showed him what dance could do. It was not until his
college years, at SUNY Binghamton, that he began to study dance in
any formal way.
He met Zane during his freshman year at SUNY, and their first
duet, "Pas de Deux for Two," was choreographed and performed
in 1973. The following year they become co-founders of American Dance
Asylum, embarking on a personal and artistic partnership that lasted
17 years. In 1982 the pair founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance
Company. Three years later, both men were diagnosed as HIV-positive;
Zane died in 1988. Jones, who keeps Zane’s name as an integral part
of the identity of his thriving modern dance company, continues to
live with HIV.
Jones maintains that just as society needs the artist, the artist,
too, has a need to keep abreast of current affairs. And this has been
especially true since September 11. "As a person who is trying
to make my art out of the dialogue between my inner life and the
world, I have to know about the external world," he says.
"In `Worldwithout/in,’ which is openly poetic, and has images
of the collision of religious values, I can feel a work that wants
to operate like a fable. I feel that all of this imagery was unfolding
almost behind my back — if you can believe it — I think as
the result of my anxiety and the confusion I was feeling."
Just as every American has had to face their own new
reality since September. Jones puts his finger on his own as "a
sense of confusion."
"I have always said my work is about some kind of
he says, "but when you see people who have embraced religious
values of transcendence that then cause them to kill thousands of
people, it has caused me to question my own values."
The confusion was compounded by the modes of thinking that brought
Jones into maturity as an artist. Forging his career in the
’70s, he watched political engagement fall out of favor in the arts.
"There was a time in the ’80s where there seemed to be such a
lethargy and lack of social conscience in the art world. I used to
say back then, `What do you care about so much that you’d be willing
to die for it?’ Now those words ring chilly and frightening to me.
I no longer know what the litmus test for commitment might be."
Returning to the question he posed in his pre-September 11 Princeton
talk, Jones says: "Does art encourage us to be brave and
I think that’s why I’m old fashioned. I have always felt that all
art that is rigorous and deeply felt is about social change."
Yet, he adds, he has always rejected art that is overtly polemical
— "that only adds to the clamor that is out there."
Jones agrees September’s terrorist acts and their impact on New York,
the nation, and the world were by definition "unimaginable."
And as he told Bill Moyers less than 10 days later, "We need the
arts now. We need them."
Today Jones acknowledges that "I can only be socially engaged
through the instrument that I think is most truly mine — and that
is my work."
Elaborating on his personal vision for the arts in this changed world,
he adds, "An artist must go in hot pursuit of a personal vision
— Nicole Plett
91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $35 & $38. Tuesday, January
29, 8 p.m.
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