Corrections or additions?
Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 23, 2000. All rights
Nicole Plett on Bill T. Jones
Before there was the lush and luxuriant landscape of
the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, there was Bill and Arnie
— two budding young experimentalists dancing in lofts and school
halls. And before there was Bill and Arnie, there was just Bill.
For those who missed out on the early years of this astounding dance
artist’s creative journey, Bill T. Jones brings his latest project
— a solo evening — to Princeton. "The Breathing Show,"
performed with violinist Daniel Roumain, on a set by Bjorn Amelan,
takes the stage at McCarter Theater, Tuesday, February 29, at 8 p.m.
"The Breathing Show" is a blend of dance, film, conversation,
and music in which Jones explores his own matchless dance style in
an intensely personal way. He says working solo is giving him his
first chance in a long while to literally "take a breather"
from the multi-pronged responsibilities of choreographing for his
multi-talented, multi-racial company of 10. He’s using the opportunity
to "take a big step back to the time when I was 19 and a young
dancer who wanted to fly."
A career-long communicator, Jones’s own expansive thoughts on this
brand-new venture were prominently featured in the New York Times
just two weekends back. His article on "Hopes and Doubts in the
Gestation of a Dance" (Sunday, February 13) provided a series
of personal journal entries chronicling "The Breathing Show’s"
bumpy evolution, from its 1999 premiere in Iowa City, to its
recently completed European tour.
Catching up with Jones by telephone at his home in the Hudson River
Valley last week, the idea of asking for further comment on a subject
already so expansively treated seemed questionable at best. Yet as
those who were present when the choreographer and his dancers took
questions after their McCarter Theater concert last spring know —
"I’m a famous bull shitter," was Jones’s first pronouncement
of that after-curtain talk — Jones is ever eager to help audiences
understand who modern dancers really are and what they do.
Today Jones shares his home with his companion, Bjorn
Amelan, who he describes as his "helpmate," who is also the
company’s associate artistic director.
Jones’s sensuous performance style has been mesmerizing audiences
for more than 20 years. Yet as his company grew and prospered, his
dual responsibilities as director and choreographer kept him behind
the scenes. While such major works as "Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s
Cabin" and "Still/Here," and last year’s "We Set Out
Early… Visibility Was Poor," all bear the stamp of his personal
esthetic, his own dance roles were minimal or non-existent.
At 47, Jones says he is now at the height of his creative ability
and ready to return to the truth of his own physical expression,
of his customary responsibilities. Yet even as he embarks on a
tour of "The Breathing Show," he is also completing work on
"You Walk," an evening-length work for the company that will
have its premiere at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival.
Right off we asked how a dancer could make a show out of breathing.
"One reason I chose the word `show’ is because you can imply it’s
like a traveling medicine show, light entertainment — or maybe
a snake oil salesman," he says. "I knew the piece was going
to travel around. I knew that although most of it would be
there was going to be a component that was made for each evening.
So it was really going to be an indulgence in my showmanship. You’ll
see that it is quite a difficult evening. Breath is very, very
in it. So on all levels, `The Breathing Show’ is an appropriate
"The solo show is an opportunity for me to really indulge in my
own performing, if you will. Now it’s not so easy as just an
because I have to act not only as a performer but also a choreographer
there too; but it’s a different process."
"Tomorrow, when I open at New Jersey PAC, the whole day will be
spent in getting myself ready psychologically and physically for that
engagement. It’s much different from being director of the company
who has 10 other dancer personalities to inspire, direct, and make
"The piece, as difficult as it is now — there are 22
that I’m in the middle of dancing — this is time out for me,"
Jones insists. "This is `Bill time,’ time to go into an envelope
that I have for the most part put aside for the last 11 or 12 years
while I’ve been directing the company."
The evening-long show was a year in the making. But following its
debut, Jones says the work seemed to be "plagued by
A respected producer, Nigel Redden, expressed the sense that "the
evening was pointless and tepid." At that late date, just weeks
away from taking the show to Europe, Jones felt that reworking the
material was his only option. "It’s curious and unsettling, but
I feel `The Breathing Show’ only began to come alive when I decided
to speak and to allow myself to improvise transitions with anecdotes,
jokes, random observations, the stuff of my personality," writes
Jones in his journal.
Asked about the circumstances of his New York Times article, Jones
explains, "I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 17 years old
— not consistently, but on and off. There have never been too
many years in which I haven’t kept one."
Now, as if he were still musing on the show’s construction, he expands
on "The Breathing Show’s" evolutionary process. "When
I’m working alone as a soloist, I ask myself what are the things you
like to do onstage? I like to sing — I sing in a vernacular style,
but I do like to sing. I like to dance. I like to be able to do that
thing that I do at home, usually for my friends, when I’m feeling
good — I express myself by dancing in the moment," Jones says
"Then there’s speaking. Speaking serves the function of breaking
down a self-imposed barrier between me and the audience, in which
I have to find some way to freshly enter into the discourse for each
performance, and yet the speaking has to be directed toward some
Born in 1952, the tenth of twelve children in a migrant worker’s
Jones spent his early years traveling the East Coast as his parents
followed the crop seasons. When he was seven, the family settled in
upstate New York. Jones attended high school there and was the second
child in the family to go on to university. He began his dance studies
in ballet and modern dance at SUNY, Binghamton.
During his freshman year he met Arnie Zane; together they embarked
on a personal and artistic partnership that lasted 17 years. Their
first collaborative duet, "Pas de Deux for Two," was
and performed in 1973. They went on to found the Bill T. Jones/Arnie
Zane Dance Company in 1982. But in 1985, 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.
Today the middle-aged Jones, who never counted on reaching middle
age, reaches back to talk about himself at age 19. "I came to
dancing at a time when I had been an athlete and an actor — not
a professional actor, but everyone was sure I was going to Broadway.
Athletics I had been doing since I was five years old," he says.
"I began to dance because I fell in love with the idea of sweat;
I was an athlete who was repulsed by the idea of competition, so I
wanted a poetic, competition-free sweat. (Little did I know then how
competitive the dance world is.)
"Now dance was, in a way, an act of rebellion. It said `No’ to
the world’s expectations of me as a young male, a young black male
who was supposed to be an athlete or a good family man. It said `No’
to the world of theater, which has a rich, rich heritage, but which
somehow separates the mind and the body.
"But this was how it started, it really was an unconscious act
of rebellion. And I developed a real taste for the abstract beauty
Coming to dance as a brash iconoclast, he met his artistic equal in
Zane. Early Jones dancewatchers remember a time when spoken and
texts superimposed funny and intriguing layers of meaning onto
duets grounded in ideas about real life. Words, Jones recalls,
another kind of rebellion.
"With time I began to look at the academy of dance, at the
and they were all about dance being this silent art, and about dancers
as being these moving bodies, and dancers being assumed to be these
stupid people. And I though to myself, `I don’t have to not
he recalls today. "And quite frankly, I believe that if I speak,
what I speak, plus what I’m doing with my body, will be greater than
the sum of their parts. And that’s where a lot of the speaking solos
came from initially.
"So I came back to speaking, not as an actor, but more like a
poet speaking. Or sometimes I just wanted to be performing this very
estheticized art form, modern dance, but then a little window opens
in my skull and inside you hear a human being at work. I was trying
to subvert the convention of the noble silence of the dancer.
"I subsequently pulled away from speaking because I became more
interested in the pure act of crafting movement in time and
he says. "Now I go back and forth. There’s a delicious tension
between the two. And I do it primarily in my solo work, not with my
company. Most of the work I’ve done for the company the past six years
has no language in it.
In addition to staking out special territory at the
intersection of words and movement, Jones is known for his powers
of improvisation. Early on, in his duo work with Arnie Zane, the pair
incorporated the special qualities of contact improvisation —
body moving against body to supply leverage for lifts and leaps —
as well as dance improvisation. As the work matured, improvisation
became a tool to generate new movement that eventually became codified
into fixed choreography.
"I use improvisation [to choreograph] because it catches me at
my most animal, most unselfconscious, and most bold," he writes
in his journal. He then adds the bold observation, "Here is my
truest contribution to contemporary dance."
Jones returns to his well of experience in "The Breathing
drawing on improvisation both to build dances and in sections of the
show that are improvised on a nightly basis. It is set in a white
stage environment designed by Bjorn Amelan, with five square fabric
columns and two film screens.
"The Breathing Show" opens with "Ghostcatching," a
dance to Schubert lieder, with music performed onstage by violinist
Daniel Roumain. Although this lush opening section, and a closing
section to the music of Mozart, are fixed choreographically, the
middle section, quirkily titled "TBArranged (sic)," embraces
improvisation. "There’s a significant impromptu component that
can change from night to night," says Jones, "where there’s
room to respond to the moment."
"`Ghost in the Machine’ is probably the most full-blown
of the evening," he continues. "I ask the audience for a
from one to ten; these numbers correspond to different music we have
selected — from Gertrude Stein reading `Picasso,’ to music of
Dinah Washington, Bob Dylan, and Blossom Dearie — and this music
can change. This is a very fun section and a very challenging section
because I never know what is coming next."
Such performance challenges are indeed striking. We ask Jones about
his life as a dancer today — How is his dance today distinct from
his dance as a young man?
"What is the difference? First of all I’m mid-process, so I will
probably answer that question better in about another 20 years,
I’m very much a transitional-aged person.
"When I was young, I think that the dancing was much more limited
— even though physically there was a great deal of energy —
it was more limited in understanding what the possibilities are of
that time on stage. I didn’t have the skills of knowing how to manage
time — not to mention space. I didn’t have the skills to access
intensely emotional impulses. I did have access to the emotions, but
I didn’t have the ability to shape them into form. So form has become
more important with time. That’s one of the benefits of age.
"At this point I know more about my limitations and I know my
strengths. My questions are more grounded in true experience as
to a kind of vague rebellion.
"When I was 19," says Jones, "it was about a certain kind
of rebellion and a desire to just be loved — to show off. Now
there’s still that desire to rebel and to be loved, but I think it’s
grounded more in actual experience. And it’s a bigger experience for
609-258-2787. $27 & $30. "The Breathing Show." Tuesday,
February 29, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.