PHOTO: Bill T. Jones stage performance
Williams Tass Jones is an accomplished artist, choreographer, dancer, theater director and writer. The world-renowned Renaissance man was born in Bunnell, Florida on February 15, 1952, but raised in upstate New York from an early age.
Bill began his dance training at the State University at Binghamton, where he studied classical ballet and modern dance. In 1982, he formed the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company with his late partner, Arnie Zane.
Today, he continues to serve as the company’s choreographer and artistic director. He is also the executive director of New York Live Arts, a multi-disciplinary performance venue.
Bill is the recipient of many accolades, including the National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, Tony Awards in the Best Choreography category (for Fela! And Spring Awakening), a MacArthur Genius Grant, the prestigious Order of Arts and Letters from the government of France, and induction into the National Museum of Dance Hall of Fame.
Here, he talks about his career and his surrealistic new memoir, “Story/Time.”
Kam Williams: Hi Bill, thanks for the interview. I loved the book.
Bill T. Jones: Fantastic!
KW: What a unique idea, turning a series of surrealistic lectures you delivered at Princeton into a memoir?
BTJ: I don’t know why I still have this illusion that I could do something quietly which would just be for a very small group of people. Now that the book is being promoted, there are wider ramifications, and it’s part of a whole other form of expression beyond my just doing pure inquiry for myself. And you’re one of those personalities that comes along with that tsunami of discourse. So, no complaints, I’m just adjusting to that. So, what would you like to do, Kam?
KW: I’d like to mix in questions from fans with some of my own. Professor/Filmmaker/Author Hisani Dubose says: How has the trend towards people relying on technology for entertainment affected the appreciation of creativity in terms of live dance performances?
BTJ: [Laughs] Well, that’s quite a question, Hisani. I appreciate the question. We’re all wondering about that. There are a couple things we see. Dancers were the last romantics. The Romantic Movement of the 18th and 19th Century had this idea that everything in the world was an expression of Nature. We in the dance world held onto this idea for a long time that we were Nature itself. There were no tricks involved. When the curtain went up, you saw real people onstage. And we took that as setting us apart from other cultural pursuits. It’s not scored and we don’t need a conductor to bring it to life. No, dance is about a group of people coming together and using their bodies. But now we’re in an electronic, on-demand age where everything can be reproduced, and where life is an ever more turned inwards experience. One thing about dance that I’m proud of is the fact that you have to show up in a place and create an instant community for an event that occurs onstage which, depending on the skill of the creators, has great resonance with that community of people. And this may sound suspiciously Christian, but you also all share a communion. Do we have the same experience with electronics? I think watching live performers onstage is different from standing around the water cooler discussing last night’s episode of Breaking Bad I notice that there is now this feeling among many young people that the most important things are those that are validated by media. Do they go out of their way to attend an event with a smaller group of people who share a specialized interest? I tend to doubt it. And I suspect that might be a consequence of the rise of electronic media.
KW: Do you think electronic media should somehow be restricted or perhaps even eliminated?
BTJ: No, I’m not a reactionary in that regard. I believe that human life is a spiritual activity, and that anything that human beings give themselves to with great enthusiasm can rise to the level of being transcendent. I’m on the side of humanity and its penchant for finding innovative ways to express our dilemma through whatever medium we’re faced with.
KW: Marcia Evans says: First, let Bill T. Jones know that ironically while on Bard College Alumni site I discovered that he received an honorary degree. Let him know as a past Bard student it made me proud to see him at that podium. It brought back my fond memories and my disappointing ones regarding lack of professors of color teaching at that esteemed college. The years I attended in the early 1980 black professors were not teaching at Bard at that time. This was before Toni Morrison who was the first professor of color to teach there. Leon Botstein kept saying that they couldn't find black professors who wanted to teach there, which was nonsense. Secondly, it's nice to see how much Mr. Botstein has grown since then. An example of his progress is reflected in how many times Mr. Jones’ dance troupe has graced the stage at Bard. It's clear that Botstein now respects Mr. Jones as an artist with much to teach about dance. Third, let him know that I admire his warrior spirit teaching the world about AIDS. Fourth, let Mr. Jones know that the mother's words of wisdom his mother gave him after he lost his partner really spoke to me. Finally, let him know that he is one of my heroes and that this sister is major proud of his gift and grace and of how he conducts his business of dance.
BTJ: Well, Marcia, I am overwhelmed by your response, because I am very much African-American, even though I’m not a Christian like my mother was. Still, I appreciate the African tradition in the Black Church where you stand up and speak out to the community and the community answers back, effectively saying, “I hear you!” And this is what this communication with you has just done for me, Marcia. One of the struggles of a contemporary modern artist is to bridge this question: Is my work coming from a continent of one, an inner voice, a unique personal experience? Or is it that you have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of a community of people who have afforded you that platform, and that your work is always going to be negotiating that inner personal location and the ongoing discussion that your people are happy? I am really proud when I receive national honors, but I’m equally pleased when I hear a sister, a black woman, actually embrace me like a brother. I no longer feel alienated at this moment.
KW: Have you had a hard time pushing back against society’s tendency to pigeonhole you and the pressure to categorize your work? What is black dance?
BTJ: That used to be the most torturous question for me. For years, I used to say that I wanted to be no part of anything that had to have a color. I wanted the same freedom enjoyed by my white colleagues. But now I say that black dance is anything that a person who defines himself as black chooses to do. That causes a lot of head scratching. Some may ask, “Why do you bother to put “black” in it?” Because there’s another subtext to that. You can look at my face and see what color I am. Still, it’s important to me to carry that little medal on my shoulder. As time goes on, it just might be part of the answer to the existential question “Who am I? Where do I come from? And why am I here?” There’s something specific about it that inflects my life as a black person.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier who is from Canada and loves dance was wondering whether you have any plans to perform there in the near future.
BTJ: We’ve played in Toronto quite a few times and hope to go there every time we produce a new work which right now is “Story/Time” which this book is based on. And we have another work-in-progress called “Analogy” dealing with a narrative in which the dancers speak. I would love to show both of those productions in Canada.
KW: What did it mean to you to be part of the series of the Toni Morrison lecture series, given that she was the first black female to win the Nobel Prize for Literature?
BTJ: It was a great honor, as well as an honor to have her in attendance, and I look forward to presenting her a copy of the book. Toni actually also happens to be a friend as well. She lives 15 minutes away from me and my companion and soon-to-be spouse, Bjorn Amelan. We live in a little town in Rockland County called Valley Cottage. Toni’s nearby in a community called Grand View. We see each other socially, and Toni and I shared the stage with Max Roach doing a piece called Degga. Degga, by the way, is a West African word, it’s Yoruba for “understand,” and according to Toni is the root of the phrases “Dig it” and “Can you dig it.”
KW: Congratulations on your impending marriage.
BTJ: Thanks, Kam.
KW: Was writing this book a cathartic experience for you?
BTJ: On one level it was. The book initially was three lectures in which I attempted to work out some ideas in public. Since I’m a performer, that’s how I’m most comfortable. But, it’s a whole other thing when you’re confronted with just your words on the page unaccompanied by your personality. So, yes, it was cathartic, but it was also nerve-wracking because I’m a professional performer, not a professional writer.
KW: Would you be interested in choreographing a screen version of a Broadway musical that is dear to your heart?
BTJ: Film is a little beyond me right now. [Laughs] I’m still wrestling with staging real space/real time events that are going to appeal to a broad audience. The recent Broadway musicals which have made it to the screen haven’t done very well. That could change, but it’s not the same as during the Golden Age of Broadway. Making a movie could be a great thing, but for some reason they haven’t fared so well lately.
KW: Ilene Proctor asks: Do you think dance should be taught as part of a school’s curriculum?
BTJ: Yes, I do. Dance is one of the most challenging cultural endeavors, because we’re literally working with the body, this profound instrument of transformation and communication. Conceptually, you can teach children, even if they have no legs, how to think not only by looking but by feeling and doing. And it’s not about athletics or competition. Inspiring a child to move just for the joy of moving is a great gift to that child.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman says: I love your work so much. I know you have worked with children and with professionals of all ages to teach them your choreography. Do you think there are some people in the general public who have no sense of rhythm who can not dance no matter how hard they try?
BTJ: [LOL] I appreciate your analysis, Bernadette, but I would ask you to expand your concept of dance beyond rhythm. There are some very moving performances I’ve witnessed where the person is practically still the whole time, making very few gestures. The most advanced people working in dance right now are using the body to explore questions about life, religion, art, medicine and so forth. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a crackerjack social dancer, but rather calls for a certain level of intelligence to be employed in close collaboration with this sacred instrument called the body.
KW: Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?
BTJ: The list grows every day. One is the visual and installation artist Theaster Gates. He has distinguished himself by working in clay with his hands while singing the blues and nursery rhymes. He also creates a novel form of art by renovating abandoned buildings in the ‘hood in Chicago them and turning them into listening rooms for the community. I’m looking forward to collaborating with him on something.
KW: Is there still a road show of Fela traveling and has the work been filmed?
BTJ: No, but there’s a movie, Looking for Fela.
KW: Publisher Troy Johnson asks: How did you become involved with the Fela Kuti Broadway play?
BTJ: Through a friend and a board member, Steven Hendel.
KW: Daryl Williams was wondering whether you felt that Fela's death due to AIDS should have been included in the play.
BTJ: Obviously I didn’t, because I didn’t put it in. Black themed shows have a hard time on Broadway. I have my reasons for that. I thought that it would hard be enough to get audiences to come and listen to his type of music as theater music. I didn’t want Fela’s uniqueness and all of his accomplishments to be subservient to another AIDS story.
KW: Colonel Alan Gray asks: How did you become involved with Alvin Ailey?
BTJ: When I moved to New York, Alvin came to one of my workshops because he had been hearing about me, since there weren’t many young black choreographers around. He recognized something that we had which was kindred and he asked me to make a piece for his company. He sort of put his arm around me, encouraged me and joined my board. And I’m forever grateful to him for that.
KW: Alan also asks: Are African-Americans generally appreciative of your style of performance?
BTJ: African-Americans are a very large and diverse group, right? We need to have a much more sophisticated discourse than that. Anything less is insulting to us as a group. Let’s face it, the modern dance world is mostly a white middle-class world. But I’ve seen more blacks attending more dance events over the years. That’s why I talk about it so much. I do want black people to know that there is a man, a brother, inside of all this esoteric stage movement who is really trying to say something from his heart. Some of it has to do with being African-American, some of it has to do with being a “World Citizen.”
KW: Thanks again for the time, Bill. Best of luck with your wedding, the book, your upcoming productions, and your many other endeavors.
BTJ: Thanks, Kam. Please don’t hesitate to call if you need to fact-check anything.