Bill T. Jones has lived through tragedy and triumph to become an elder statesman of dance.
Bill T. Jones is a celebrated choreographer and dancer. Among his many accolades, he has won a National Medal of Arts, a Tony Award, a Gish Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship.
Born in Florida in 1952, Jones grew up near Rochester, NY. He studied dance at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he met longtime collaborator and life-partner Arnie Zane. Their work was fiercely autobiographical, openly presenting homosexuality and tackling racism and other political issues through multimedia performances that pushed the boundaries of contemporary dance.
In 1982, the pair formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, a name Jones kept even after Zane’s death from AIDS in 1988. Jones’s Still/Here (1994) confronted his own diagnosis with HIV in a meditation on mortality that incorporated the movements of terminally ill people. He has choreographed over 120 works, including commissions from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the New York Opera, and the Boston Ballet. Jones also works in musical theater; his choreography for Fela! won a Tony Award in 2010.
Bill T. Jones can stop a room. He has “it”; charisma, presence, call it what you will. But, he wasn’t always aware that this was a superpower.
Bill T. Jones: I thought I was just with neon lights, saying, “Needy, needy! Afraid, afraid! Full-of-doubt, full-of-doubt!” but that’s not what came across.
At 67, this national treasure and now legendary choreography and dancer remains in unreasonably good physical condition, and though he’s no longer the de facto star of his own creations, he is constantly reevaluating his role.
Jones: Am I only a thinking head who thinks about choreography and dance and art, or am I still able to do that primal, thing, which is bust a move? Every year, maybe it’s a little bit more difficult to find it but when you find it, and it’s pure, and it’s yours, and it’s generous, and joyous, it’s like nothing else. I can’t do it on command, as my dancers are required to when we tour, when we have to show up. When you’re older you have to do more with less. For instance, how do you want to suggest elevation when you don’t jump anymore? How do you want to suggest big feeling or huge gesture without overdoing it? It’s got to be all done in some sort of subtle, ineluctable way, you’ve gotta have that relationship with the audience, that your small gestures are amplified by, and this is very difficult to say, they sense your commitment to being in this moment, and that you are master of the moment, and you invite them to participate, and then, they follow you, because you’re doing much more suggesting than actually demonstrating. I think that’s noble. If you have had a wholesome career, you’ve gone through the whole gamut, learning, expressing, expressing, then making this transition, ’til now you’ve earned the right to be an elder.
And it was through observing his elders as a lad that Bill T. Jones first discovered the power of dance. Jones grew up in a family of migrant farm workers in 1950s Upstate New York. He says they were effectively segregated from the communities in which they worked, so they socialized where they could, often in backrooms around a jukebox.
Jones: The people, when they’re not working, they want to carry on, they want to tell stories, they want to drink together, some of them played instruments, and then we, the children, were watching this. It was telling me about the history of where I come from, talking of a world that I could not imagine, and then that jukebox, we would be able to, this is long before we had a stereo, we found a way in off season that we could go in the back and hit a switch, and we could get unlimited plays. So, we would perform for each other. We didn’t tap, but what does it mean to bring it home, you know, what does this mean? You could hear it in the music, and, emulating that and making up scenarios, and stories, that often had a movement element to it, that’s where dancing started for me.
From these humble beginnings, Jones’ relationship with dance became more formalized at Binghamton University.
Jones: I was ready to be looked at, I mean, obnoxiously so.
AJC: There’s a big change that happens there, it goes from being a vernacular, to this performance that happens at a concert, that’s a very–
Jones: To being a student first, and do you know what you don’t know, and the arrogance of a young person, you think, oh, that’s this icing, I know what it means, and so I was one of those arrogant persons, but I was also hungry. I remember my instructor at this university, I’m 19 years old, saying, there’s a place called Alvin Ailey that we’re primarily black people, you could go to New York and let Mr. Ailey finish you. “’Cause you got a lot of energy, but you needs to be finished, you know?” And, of course, around this time, the avant garde is coming into my consciousness, saying, “Don’t let anybody finish you”, and it’s not about what your body does, it’s about your ideas.
His affinity for the avant garde was cemented when he met Arnie Zane, his physical opposite, but spiritual soulmate.
Jones: He was scared to dance, he thought he looked funny in tights, when he and I fell in love and I was there, he wanted to be with me, so he came into that world, and there, the avant garde was very useful, because it said you did not have to have long, extended legs, you had to just have an imagination and some chutzpah. You had to be daring, and he had plenty of that.
Early on, Jones insisted on telling stories that were grounded in the psychological. Zane preferred structure and form. They were constantly at odds, but in resolving their differences, they created work that was greater than anything they could’ve done separately. From its inception in 1982, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company built a reputation for innovation, but then, in 1988, Arnie died from AIDS-related lymphoma. Though it was still largely taboo, Jones spoke freely about Zane’s death and his own HIV positive status, and began making work that talked about historically thorny issues in America. In 1990 he made waves with “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land”, his first interrogation of how slavery and Christianity have defined the American experience. In 1994, his piece about people with life-threatening illnesses confronting their own mortality, “Still/Here”, became part of the national conversation, when the New Yorker’s Dance Critic, Arlene Croce, refused to review it, calling it “victim art”. Ironically, all this controversy made Jones a household name, but even as his own reputation has grown, Bill T. Jones has been careful to make sure that Arnie Zane has not been forgotten. Even today, the company still bears both their names.
Jones: This is the child he and I had. This is back in a time when, before gay people were allowed to marry, before gay people would think that they could actually be parents. We thought that our claim on that was the solidity of our relationship, our enthusiasm for what we were doing, and this company. When he was dying, he said to me, “You don’t have to keep the company, you’re not temperamentally suited to do it, go off and have a solo career, do other things”, but I said, “No, no, no”. We’re somewhat defiant. We are not eunuchs. We are fecund, we can make a thing that has a life as much as any child that you could have. So, it’s Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company.
But Zane wasn’t wrong. Jones has always had to work on nurturing his gentler side.
Jones (in rehearsal): So it’s not just a pause. The feeling!
AJC: You do let fly occasionally.
Jones: Oh, I do.
AJC: And the people that love you hang around.
Jones: They’re very expensive flights.
AJC: How do you mean they’re very expensive?
Jones: Because I think that there’s a kind of, what’s the word?
AJC: Lasting damage?
Jones: Well, trust is a capital, isn’t it? Particularly trust of a young, vulnerable person, and you can make a volatile, categorical statement, someone might be hurt. He may get over it, but they’re always gonna remember that you struck them. I’m struggling with that one. I’m better. I’m struggling with it. You still think of yourself as this disenfranchised kind of underdog, when you walk in, you’re the big cheese! I’m not saying you’re president, but, in your environment, you have weight, so, I said, “I don’t wanna behave with decorum!” Well, I see now why there is such a thing as decorum. “It’s so phony!” Well, you know, maybe one thing you have to do is sometimes not always be authentic. And you have to decide when that’s going to be. I’m trying to come to grips with my responsibility and when is the time to really take a stand? I’ve always believed in, let’s draw a line in the sand. Okay, you’ve drawn a line in the sand. Okay. You’ve got a line in the sand!
AJC: Difficult to walk back over.
Jones: Yes, so maybe you should not draw so many lines in the sand.
Now in the autumn of his life, Bill T. Jones has achieved the status of distinguished elder, and though he may be mellowing, he’s still taking nothing for granted.
Jones: There’s something about being the son of potato pickers. Something about having survived the thing that took Arnie Zane away. I wanna win. I want everything.
AJC: What’s the prize?
Jones: Dying with more security than my parents had when they died.
AJC: That’s already there.
Jones: That’s true. But, you know what, every day, every day, as Louise Nevelson said, it’s either plus or minus, don’t assume because it starts one way, it’s gonna end another. And, there’s something about dying and maybe you’re giving me that, having one’s heart intact. Still able to love.