Staying the Course
- Bill T. Jones has lived through tragedy and triumph to become an elder statesman of dance.
- A decade on, the British pop star Lily Allen is still as forthright as ever—in her lyrics and her personal life.
- When companies need help refining or defining their identity, they call Michael Bierut.
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.
Lily Allen is an internationally famous singer and songwriter and a bestselling author. Her four studio albums have sold over four million copies and spawned three UK number 1 singles: “Smile” (2006), “The Fear” (2008), and “Somewhere Only We Know” (2013).
Allen was born in London to actor-comedian Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen. She dropped out of school at age 15 to pursue a music career. Her breakthrough came at age 20 after she posted several tracks on MySpace, then the most-popular website on the internet. Her songs combine revelatory lyrics spoken-sung over an accessible pop sound drawn from a range of musical influences. Her first album, Alright, Still (2006), sold over 2.5 million records; her second, It’s Not Me, It’s You (2009), hit number 1 in the UK album charts and number 5 in the United States. Her third, Sheezus (2014), also topped the UK charts.
Allen’s tell-all 2018 memoir My Thoughts Exactly details her press controversies, public feuds, addiction, longtime stalker, sexual assault, motherhood, struggles with fame, and more.
Michael Bierut is an award-winning graphic designer and author. A lecturer at Yale University and former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, he designed the ubiquitous “H” logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Born in Cleveland, he studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati and moved to New York to work for Massimo Vignelli, famed designer of the NYC subway map. After ten years at Vignelli Associates, he became a partner at Pentagram design firm. Known for his accessible, witty style, his clients have included Benetton, Disney, Harley-Davidson, Mastercard, Motorola, the New York Jets, The New York Times, United Airlines, and Verizon. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among other institutions.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the creative spark in the human spirit. Coming up on this episode, Bill T. Jones has lived through tragedy and triumph to become an elder statesman of dance.
Bill T. Jones: You still think of yourself as this disenfranchised kind of underdog, when you walk in, you’re the big cheese!
Tori Marchiony reports on how the British pop sensation Lily Allen has become as well-known for her unrelentingly honest lyrics as she is for her outspokenness, that has often landed her in the tabloids.
Lily Allen: I speak my mind and I get a battering for it, you know. I kinda want people to see, like, what happens when you’re a woman and you say something.
And, when companies need help refining or defining their identity, they call Michael Bierut; he’s a visionary who also welcomes criticism.
Michael Bierut: If someone doesn’t like my design I just draw it out of them in every loving detail. What else don’t you like about it? How much do you hate it? What do you hate more, the color, or the shape?
It’s all coming up on Articulate.
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.
(Lily Allen singing “The Fear”)
Forget about guns and forget ammunition
‘Cause I’m killing them all on my own little mission
I’m not a saint, I’m not a sinner
Everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner
Lily Allen is no shrinking violet. For more than a decade she’s been a persistent presence in Britain’s social and cultural conversations. She’s a singer/songwriter, an activist, a broadcaster, and a writer. She’s also a divorced mother of two with a knack for getting into fights with other celebrities on social media. Or, put another way.
Lily Allen: I think I’m a hot mess. A proud hot mess.
She’s also quite a polarizing force. For those on the left, she’s seen as an advocate for social justice. On the right, as a mouthpiece for the liberal elite. Despite her mixed reputation, a lot of people are listening rather carefully to what Lily Allen has to say. More than five million followers on Twitter and in 2018, a number one bestselling memoir.
(Excerpt from Lily Allen’s My Thoughts Exactly)
I’m writing this because writing is what I do. It’s both my living and the way that I live, the way I make sense of things, the way I try to learn my lessons. I’m writing this so that if I died today, my daughters can learn from my mistakes.
Allen: I felt so defined by this character that has been written for me by the tabloids and stuff in the UK, and I really feel like I wanted to embark on the next section of my life, but I felt like I couldn’t really do that until I cleared up some stuff about the last section.
The last section saw Allen rack up more than a dozen top 40 hits in the UK, three of them number ones. She also sold millions of albums worldwide, thanks to her blunt, personal lyrics, and devil-may-care attitude. But her latest record, 2018’s Mercury Prize-nominated No Shame brought a new level of self-reflection.
(Lily Allen singing “Come On Then”)
I tried to keep an open mind
I feel like I’m under attack all of the time
My head can’t always hold itself so high
What if inside I’m dying?
Every night I’m crying
And even if I die trying
I bet you’d probably quite like it
Yeah, I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad wife
You saw it on the socials, you read it online
If you go on record saying that you know me
Then how am I so lonely
‘Cause nobody phones me
You say you see how I move
Life has not always been kind to Lily Allen, but unlike some of the other so-called party girls of her generation, she at least survived her 20s. The singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse and the broadcaster Peaches Geldof were not so lucky.
Allen: There were definitely times when things got so full-on that I felt like I wanted to end it all, and, both Amy and Peaches chose heroin as an escape route. I was surrounded by heroin addicts growing up, and I saw what that did, and it’s just never been– I’ve always known that as soon as I do that, it’s over. I remember being in a car with my mum once when I was a kid and I said to her, you know, “What’s heroin like?” and she was like, “It’s like being on a honey-coated cloud.” It’s like, okay, I’m never gonna touch that, because that sounds really delicious and great. So, yeah, I mean actually even though it was probably really irresponsible of her to say it in that way and not say, it’s awful, don’t ever think about taking heroin, in a way actually her being honest about it, and knowing what it does to people is like okay, well, that’s gonna be a no-go zone for me. We’ve got no filter, us Allens. Owen-Allens.
Both of Lily Allen’s parents were in the entertainment business. Her mother, Alison Owen, who raised her, is a successful film producer. Her father is Keith Allen, a comedian and actor who achieved some success in the 1980s and 90s.
Allen: I think I inherited my punk spirit from my dad and a little bit from my mum as well. I think more than anything I inherited my tenacity and fighting spirit from my mum. She’s an incredible, incredible woman. She’s a flawed woman like all of us, but, you know, my mum had my sister when she was like 18 years old, I think she was pregnant with my sister when she was 17 and she came from a very working class family in a coastal town in the UK and they were staunch Catholics and they cast her out, because she got pregnant out of wedlock, and they were ashamed of her. She managed to make her way to London with a small baby in tow, and by the time she was 24 she had two more, and she’s an incredibly successful film producer, and she did that all on her own. The fact that she’s managed to get herself to where she is today is truly inspirational.
AJC: How did your parents react to your success? ‘Cause you didn’t expect to be that big. They probably didn’t expect it.
Allen: I think they were proud. I think they were weirded out. I just think my dad has struggled with it a little bit.
AJC: In what way, like, jealousy?
Allen: Maybe? I dunno, you’d have to ask him. Certainly his behavior towards me would suggest that. I mean, he’s not mean, but I think it must be quite difficult. I know that growing up in his shadow was very much like, oh, Lily, she’s Keith Allen’s daughter and then suddenly he became Lily Allen’s dad.
In the past 15 years, Lily Allen has made her own name as a rare truth-teller in popular culture by boldly putting her failures and foibles on full display, even when it’s turned her into a punching bag.
Allen: I speak my mind and I get a battering for it, which is what happens in the real world, so, I think hopefully I represent truth, because, I’d say those things not because I want respect or want anything back from it. I kinda want people to see what happens when you’re a woman and you say something.
And it seems Lily Allen still has plenty to say.
(Lily Allen singing “Trigger Bang”)
I need to move and grow some
Been in the Firehouse for too long
LDN’s burning, so tan one
I’m gonna love you and leave some
I’m gonna go out while I’m still strong, hey
And it fuels my addictions
Hanging out in this whirlwind
If you cool my ambitions
I’m gonna cut you out
That’s why I can’t hang with the cool gang
Everyone’s a trigger
Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang
Goodbye bad bones, I’ve got bigger plans
Don’t wanna put myself in your hands
That’s why I can’t hang out with the cool gang
Everyone’s a trigger
Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang
Goodbye bad bones, I’ve got bigger plans
Don’t wanna put myself in your hands
Michael Bierut is responsible for bringing some of the most recognizable brand identities around into the 21st century. As a young boy growing up in suburban Cleveland in the 1960s, Bierut came to the concept of creativity quietly. It started with Jon Gnagy’s TV show, which taught him not only how to draw, but also, how to see the world.
Bierut: Every episode, just like Bob Ross, would start with a blank canvas, and then he would patiently take you through, “We’re gonna add some of this, a little of this here, just like that there”, and to watch it happen was just sort of unearthly in a way that was unlike anything around me. And then, of course, the trick is that you realize that everything around you was created through a similar process. Every car on the road, every house on the street, every sign on every street pole, cover of every magazine in the drugstore, someone sat with a blank something and someone was the first one to say I think I’m gonna make an octagon and make it red, and it’s gotta say S-T-O-P on it, gimme one of them.
In the five decades since, Beirut has become one of the most well-regarded graphic designers around, winning hundreds of awards, and having his work added to the permanent collections of prestigious art institutions, among them, the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. For a long time, Bierut believed that it was wrong that graphic designers didn’t enjoy the same kind of public acclaim accorded to other creatives. He says that’s changed in recent years, thanks to a marked increase and awareness of, and interest in design among the general public. But, becoming the focus of countless blogs, comments, and social media posts has been a two-edged sword.
Bierut: I started out thinking, wow, it’d be great if everyone knew what I did and it would be great if people talked about new logos the way they talk about new restaurants or the way they talk about new movies. And so, now they do, sort of, to a degree that’s actually kind of distressing, but, I forgot that second part where if people start talking about things, they can say whatever they want. I think I secretly wanted them just to simply be impressed I had done these things and praise me for my skill, but instead they have their own reactions.
Their own sometimes harsh reactions. Perhaps none more so than the deluge of vitriol heaped on Bierut’s intentionally simple logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. Happily, though, Bierut has, over time, developed quite a thick skin. He says he’s learned not how to resist criticism, but how to embrace it.
Bierut: If I had one thing that I did wrong at the beginning, it was the minute someone started objecting to something I designed, I started mounting a masterful defense of it from every possible angle. Now, if someone doesn’t like my design, I just draw it out of them in every loving detail. What else don’t you like about it? How much do you hate it? What do you hate more, the color or the shape? I mean, I really try, partly because I think people are frightened they’re not gonna be listened to, and you learn things by listening to them, you really do, you really do.
AJC: How old were you when you knew you had developed that simpatico? ‘Cause that sounds like a great formula for any relationship. That you can be with somebody and go, oh, I did that? Tell me everything I need to know about what was wrong with that.
Beirut: This is after I was grown up and working as a designer a few years, but still defending my work all the time, really trying to sell it. And my brother, who’s a civil engineer, asked me to do a logo for his civil engineering company. So, I sent him some drawings, and he didn’t like the first few, and I just thought that was funny, I was like, what don’t you like about them? And he told me, then I said oh, I get it, okay so, what do you want? You want something more like this? And then I tried some other things. There was just something so open and pleasant about that relationship that I remember I literally thought, shoot, if I could do that every time I’d really, that’d be so much fun to work for people, if I could give everyone just plain old unvarnished advice.
AJC: It removes so much anxiety out of your work.
Bierut: Absolutely, I mean the worst outcome is someone just nodding and saying, well, you’ve given us a lot to think about, and then they go away and you have no idea what happened, what moaning happens after the door closes behind you, and then you get some memo with a thousand bullet points on it, where it’s just picked at from every direction. I mean, just sort of someone looking you in the eye and say I love it or I hate it is really bracing, but in both those cases, what’s great is that they’re participating in the moment and actually to a certain degree, permitting themselves to enjoy the same creative process that I’ve been enjoying.
Michael Beirut continues to strive to maintain a delicate balance in his practice of design. Harmony between the joy of creation, dedication to craft, and serving the ideals and visions of those his work represents.