Since the 1970s, Jones has explored narratives from Abraham Lincoln to Aids in dance. Now hes turned to the work of WG Sebald and his own nephew
The first things one notices about the choreographer and director Bill T Jones are his stentorian voice, his beauty and his razor-sharp intellect. (He doesnt suffer fools.) These qualities are interconnected; self-awareness is at the very heart of his work. In the 40 years since he began making dances he has insisted on the centrality of the self in his art. He refers to himself as a body-based artist, walking that line between the personal and the public. To Jones, dance is not, and cannot be, wholly abstract; it is influenced by the histories and stories of the people who make and perform it, the conditions in which it is made, and the larger world that surrounds it. Thus, for him, dance is theatre, not just movement.
As he put to me in New York, I come from a storytelling tradition. Jones was the 10th of 12 children in a family of black migrant laborers from Florida who settled in upstate New York, part of the great migration. A lot of my identity comes from my parents talking about a world that existed before I did. Talking in public is part of what I do.
Its an approach that has allowed him to bridge the divide between the avant garde dance world, in which he proudly situates himself, and the wider public. Like his contemporary, Mark Morris, Jones has broken out of the cloistered circles of modern dance into the broader American cultural conversation. PBS specials have been made about him, he has directed a successful show on Broadway (Fela!), and he has received more honors (including the MacArthur Genius award and a National Medal of the Arts) than one can count.
When Jones and his late partner, Arnie Zane, came on to the New York avant garde scene in the late 70s, they immediately made a stir. Jones was tall and African American in a mostly white dance world, and a vivid and extroverted performer; Zane was white, petite and cerebral. Zane came to dance from photography and visual art; Jones, from theatre, athletics and literature. (The two met at the State University of New York at Binghamton.) Their duets reflected their intellectually engaged, intimate relationship. There was a directness and power and honesty to what they were doing, says the dance critic Elizabeth Zimmer, who has been following Joness work since those early days. They were using each others bodies honestly and powerfully.
Most of those dances had text, which was unusual at the time. I came into the movement world at a time when narrative was very much not fashionable, he explains. The postmoderns wanted to get away from Martha Graham and psychology. They got away from language. So I think the return to narrative was an uneasy one. Audiences, including other artists from New Yorks downtown scene, were intrigued, even fascinated. Robert Mapplethorpe took pictures of them; they collaborated with Keith Haring who painted on Joness body and others.
Zane died in 1988, of Aids. Jones kept working. The company they founded in 1982, the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Company, still bears his late partners name. (That company is the child Arnie and I produced, he explains.) Over the decades, he has continued to explore narrative his works have mined the reflections of people living with terminal illnesses in Still/Here, the Iliad in Achilles Loved Patroclus (1993), the Gospels and Harriet Beecher Stowe in The Last Supper at Uncle Toms Cabin/The Promised Land (1990), the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in Fondly Do We Hope Fervently Do We Pray (2009), his own family stories in Story/Time (2012).
His interests are omnivorous. Hes reaching out in all directions, to the whole spectrum of the world and culture, says Zimmer. Narrative is his material, which he channels through the filter of his choreographic imagination. The two strains narrative and dancing exist side by side, almost independently. Those choreographic sequences are like a bolt of material that can be cut, reassigned, turned around, he says.
He has also consistently addressed issues of identity gender, race, American history, class, Aids, death. This has caused occasional pushback, most famously in 1994, when the New Yorkers former dance critic, Arlene Croce, referred to Still/Here as an example of victim art. By using the stories of people with terminal illnesses, she argued, he was pursuing an ethos of community outreach, not art. But who is to say that pain, suffering and anger in short, life cant be driving forces in artistic creation? Time has mostly healed these wounds; Joness approach no longer feels that radical, and hes certainly not alone. Hes also a gentler artist than he was then.
His most recent interest, revealed in two new works coming to the Joyce Theatre this week, lies in the realm of oral history. Analogy/Dora: Tramontane and Analogy/Lance: Pretty AKA The Escape Artist, performed on alternating nights, are the first installments in a still-unfinished trilogy, to be called the Analogy Trilogy. The work is inspired in part by the writings of the German author WG Sebald, particularly his 1992 novel The Emigrants. The idea came out of a conversation with his dancers: Every 18 months or so we have a kind of review. One of the dancers asked, whats your interest right now? and I said, I think its literary. So how can I put together the love for that company with this love for something in the world of ideas? The answer came from Sebalds novel, which follows the lives of four German Jewish characters who scatter to the winds after the war, and hinges on questions of memory, loss and exile. So, too, the Trilogy.
The first section revolves around the memories of Dora Amelan, Joness mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who at 19 was forced to flee Belgium after the Nazi invasion. I thought, he says, wouldnt it be good if my dance company had to channel a story that is very alien to them, but the person remembering it was very much their age at the time? Dora ended up in Vichy, where she volunteered for a Jewish organization that aided, but could not save, Jewish refugees held in French internment camps.
The second draws on conversations between Jones and one of his nephews, Lance Theodore Briggs, a self-described pretty boy gangster thug torn between his creative impulses and a pronounced self-destructive streak. When Jones undertook this oral history, his nephew was hovering between life and death, his legs paralyzed by nerve damage caused by drug use. (Hes better now.) The third installment will be centered on a character from Sebalds novel, Ambros. It will premiere next July.