One On 1 Profile: Bill T. Jones Interprets Life Through Dance
Updated: Updated 09/13/2010 08:30 PM
By: Budd Mishkin
Last week, the Kennedy Center announced this year's honorees including choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones -- a man who for almost 40 years has used the dance stage as his forum to make us feel and think. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
Dancer, choreographer, and artist Bill T. Jones can be described as being influential, innovative and thoughtful.
"What is the next work I'm going to make? I don't know. I don't know, maybe I'm empty. Maybe I have nothing else to say," says Jones.
He's won two Tony Awards, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so called "genius" award, and will receive a Kennedy Center honor later this year. His dance company has created more than 100 works that have been performed around the world.
Since 2007, we've seen his work on Broadway, first in "Spring Awakening" and more recently in "Fela!"
It seems that Jones has transitioned easily and successfully between the dance world and Broadway, helping to create two hits and winning two Tony awards. We might place both of these worlds under the heading of the arts, but Jones sees a gap between them, a gap not so easily bridged.
"Tonight, somebody could die on this stage. Tonight, somebody could sprout wings and fly on this stage. That is the wonderful promise of live performance," says Jones. "And you might wonder, so how does Broadway fit in to all this? Broadway is a culture that really wants live performance to be just like a DVD. It's designed so there are no surprises."
He formed his dance company in the early 1980s with his life and dance partner, Arnie Zane. One of its early calling cards was a form called contact improvisation, using leverage and counter balance so that anyone could lift anyone.
"Suddenly the possibilities expand, Arnie Zane was 5'4", I'm 6'1". We could think of partnering in a much freer way," recalls Jones.
Through Jones' eyes, the meaning of this new form extended far beyond the dance floor, confronting what he saw as the gender structures -- strong man, swooning woman -- of classical ballet.
"What about a form where any two people of any gender could work? And the big person's not always the one lifting the small person. Suddenly we are talking about the world that we live in," says Jones.
Jones has long been open about being HIV positive. It is a subject he will use in his art, but he doesn't want to be seen as a symbol.
"I'm nobody's symbol. And I will not allow anybody to define me as anything," says Jones. "There were certain quarters people were needing that, needing you to be a martyr, needing you to be a sort of symbol for that. And I respect those sort of feelings and those needs but I don't have to play to that and I don't. What about being a black artist uplifting the race. Same thing. Maybe I don't want to be responsible for uplifting the race. I want to be responsible for my psyche and my creative self."
Bill T. Jones was born in Florida and moved to Wayland, New York, a small, predominantly white town upstate. His parents were migrant workers -- potato pickers who fled the Jim Crow south.
"My mother can remember lynchings. And she told us about those things -- 'Don't trust white people.' And yet when you're a kid and you go to school these are your playmates and you love them," says Jones.
In his 1997 book "Last Night on Earth," Jones eloquently recalls a time in school when his classmates were playing keep away with a shoe belonging to new kid in school, the child of newer migrant workers who regularly arrived in town. The game incensed Jones. He returned the shoe to the boy, and eventually wrote about it in a story called "Monkey in the Middle."
"Something had been transgressed. And of course what made this story work was that, not only was he the monkey in the middle, but I felt like the monkey in the middle between my newfound home and this other world that he represented," recalls Jones. "It sounds like I'm talking about Bill T. Jones now. It's odd. I've never thought, until you asked me that question. I never realized that that paradigm has not really shifted. A sense of self caught between polarities, environments."
He'd excelled in sports and drama in high school, but at the State University of New York at Binghamton, he fell in love with an African dance class.
"When I walked into the room there was a kind of excitement, a rising. There was, there truly was an integrated environment and the language was the language of a black person. Something unheard of for me," says Jones.
At Binghamton, he also fell in love with a man, Arnie Zane. They would become partners in life, and in dance.
Zane became HIV positive and died in 1988 of AIDS related lymphoma. In the aftermath, Jones continuing preparing a concert of works they had created together.
"The day after he died waking up and before I was conscious I was weeping. Like the body knew something had changed even before the mind did, you know. The body knew. But the body also knew something about forward momentum," says Jones.
In 1990, Jones created one of his most prominent works -- "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" -- which included singing by his mother Estella. There were times when Jones' mother, in her Sunday best, would be joined on stage by 60 dancers, naked, where once she'd been surrounded by migrant workers. But his mother saw a connection.
"I get to sing up here every night, I get to be with my son. This is his business. My mother and father were potato pickers, migrant workers. She saw my company traveling together in a group. You followed in the path of your daddy. That's what she saw," says Jones.
He still inspires passion in his admirers, but rare are the nights, as Jones puts it, when he would "go out on stage and set himself on fire."
"I want to be safe like anybody else, I do, I really do. I'm 58 years old. I'm really concerned about that. And I'm an upper middle class person. I have a lot to protect in this world," says Jones.
But in a wide-ranging conversation on a quiet afternoon, the passion, the pride, the fire in a young man from upstate New York who shook up the dance world is still there.
"Lo and behold those sons of bitches that thought we were a flash in the pan in 1980. Where are they? Who's still up there? Who has this beautiful company? Who has won two Tony awards? Who's talking to you today? Imperfect, ya know, oftentimes still shaking in his boots, but still doing it," says Jones.
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