The Transcendent Artistry of Bill T. Jones

By WYATT MASON

Bill T. Jones performs poses from his 1983 solo work, “21.”
Inez and Vinoodh. Styled by David Vandewal

“FAME,” WROTE Rainer Maria Rilke, in 1902, “is, after all, only the sum of all the misunderstandings that gather around a new name.” The line appears at the beginning of a short book on Auguste Rodin that a 27-year-old Rilke published when the world-­famous sculptor was 63. However much we think we know about Rodin, the young poet argued, we’re wrong. And yet, Rilke goes on to say, it’s not even worth taking the time to disabuse us of our errors, “for they gathered around the name, not around the work.”

Rilke’s warning about confusing the artist with his work was on my mind one afternoon last fall when I sat in a still-lush garden on the Rockland County property of the 64-year-old choreographer, director, dancer and writer Bill T. Jones. Arguably the most written-about figure in the dance world of the last quarter century, Jones is inarguably the most broadly laureled, with a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor and Tony Awards and a Dorothy & Lillian Gish Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship and, without hyperbole, scores more. Jones has received as much praise from avant-garde aficionados (in 1998, the Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt wrote, approvingly, of Jones’s “politically charged pieces,” in which “even beauty seems to pose an enraged challenge”) as from the mainstream (in 2009, the Times critic Ben Brantley gushed that Jones’s Broadway musical “Fela!” left audiences feeling like they “have been dancing with the stars … And I mean astral bodies”).

And yet, Jones has also been critiqued with uncommon rancor. In her 1994 piece “Discussing the Undiscussable,” the New Yorker critic Arlene Croce argued that Jones had become “literally undiscussable.” The premise of Jones’s major midcareer work, “Still/Here,” offended the critic so profoundly that she refused even to see the piece — a meditation about mortality in which Jones incorporated the movements of terminally ill people whom he’d met in the free dance workshops he’d set up for them, the patients becoming, in a sense, collaborators. “By working dying people into his act,” Croce wrote, “Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. … the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs.”

It’s difficult to read Croce’s assessment today and not see the critic as having misunderstood Jones in the very way that Rilke cautioned against; by 1994, Jones, already famous as a gifted dancer and choreographer, had also become famously associated with AIDS after the death of his partner, Arnie Zane, and after the publicizing of his own HIV-positive status. But Croce’s piece also went precisely to how, since the 1970s, Jones’s own story has been variously at the center of his art: an aesthetic choice to initiate a dialogue over the place that a gay black man has in contemporary American life. For two generations now, his work has attempted to provoke, in the manner of a person intent on steering a conversation toward the uncomfortable, in order to yield understanding.

Jones is himself a gifted talker, as I discovered under an umbrella shading the worn wooden wheel of a table on his deck, where he was giving me a sort of master class on 20th-century dance. The reason for my visit was to discuss the genesis and evolution of his newest work — an ambitious three-part cycle of dances called “Analogy,” which I’d been watching his company develop. While invisibly refilling our water and wine glasses as we ate chicken soup and fresh cornbread that his husband and companion in all things, the artist Bjorn Amelan, had made us for lunch, Jones was also talking about his love of W.G. Sebald’s “The Emigrants,” its nested narratives telling the stories of four Jewish lives touched by the Holocaust, as well as the struggle he had lately been having with Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which he and Amelan have been reading to each other.

Video | Bill T. Jones
The much-laureled 64-year-old choreographer, director, dancer and writer discusses his life’s work — and performs poses from his 1983 solo work, “21.”

Amelan, a warm and decorous French Jew who retains a central casting accent despite two decades in America, was indoors while Jones and I spoke, keeping half an eye on his 95-year-old mother, Dora, a Holocaust survivor, who visits them for several weeks every year and calls Jones “her third son.” As Amelan worked, Jones explained how dance had evolved in the 20th century, from what he called “the well-made dance” of George Balanchine, with its exquisite precision and elegant, finished forms, to the postmodern dances of the ’60s that disrupted that soothing elegance to admit novel features: singing and talking, for instance. Also: not dancing, in the way that John Cage’s music had showed us that silence in expectation of music that never begins can itself be music. Jones gave me a sense of what it meant when he took his first steps onto those first stages, in the 1970s. His dances were designed to get the audience — almost completely white, then as now — to examine what they were doing, sitting there, watching an aggressively beautiful, half-naked, young, gay, out black man dance for them. It was, absolutely, an intimidation.

“In the era of when people were discovering identity politics,” Jones said in his rambling baritone, “for someone to step up and say: I am aware of what you see when you look at me. ‘Oh such narcissism! Such self-involvement!’ ” Jones adopted a different voice here as he collated past responses to his work, essentially performing the argument. “Well, no,” Jones said, returning to his own voice, “Quite frankly, you — usually it’s white people — have a lot of problems actually looking at me, at who I really am. And I am now giving you permission to do so. I am going to move; I am going to gesture; I’m going to be speaking in a way that’s very personal, and yet I’m going to be dancing in another way, and you will be obliged to decide how to process it all and make it into a thing which you and I agree is supposed to be happening here: an artistic event is supposed to be happening here.”

Conversation, for Jones, is itself an artistic event. Confrontation is at its heart, and his tactics are varied and surprising. I saw Jones’s jousting mode last spring, before an audience at Bard College where I teach. His company had just performed an early version of the first part of “Analogy,” called “Dora: Tramontane,” which draws on his mother-in-law’s personal history, that of a Jewish girl in a Jewish family that, like so many families of the era and the region, was, during the war, vandalized by fate. After the performance, during a Q. and A. with Jones and his company, the moderator asked a question about what it takes for someone like Dora to stand up and resist, and whether a piece like this can inspire people to act. Jones took the question seriously. “I am making this work to satisfy my artistic desires,” he said, “but behind it I’m also trying to make a work that might be like in the black church, when somebody stands up and says: ‘Yes! I have a problem!’ They say it to the community. ‘I am weak! I wanna be strong!’ And somebody in the community says. ‘Amen! I hear you! I hear you!’ And that’s why the black church has been a political organ. Literally, it starts there. Now, what’s your church? And those of you who are breeding and having children, what is the creed that you will demonstrate every day?”

Jones’s question to the audience wasn’t entirely rhetorical. He had given, and now he wanted the students to give back. “What about you?” he later asked one of them. “What are you pushing against? Is this your world? Do you feel this world wants you?”

Like his conversation, his dance compositions require a give and take. Consider Jones’s first solo on a big stage, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, in 1977, from a piece called “EverybodyWorks/All Beasts Count.” During the course of the solo, Jones tells a true, brief story about visiting two of his mother’s sisters, his “aunties.” The text, which quotes them, goes:

Jones and his late partner, Arnie Zane, performing excerpts of “Valley Cottage” for the photographer Lois Greenfield in 1981.

When I was a little boy about 12 years old, I received a little ____ card in the mail. When I was a little boy about 12 years old, I went back to the place I was born, Bunnell, Florida. I was sitting on the porch with my two old aunties: Aunt Mattie, and Aunt Purity Rodgers. Aunt Mattie said to me, “Billy, you ain’t gonna do like your brother Iry did. He went up north and married a ____ girl. And if you marry a ____ girl, you can’t come down here and visit us no more.” And I said, “Auntie, I love you. I love you.”

Those blanks aren’t blank, just silent, as Jones mouths, big and clear, so that even the non-lip-reading among us can’t miss it, “WHITE,” as if white were a dirty word, something you shouldn’t say out loud. As Jones is telling this story, his hands are busy, repeatedly, constantly telegraphing a series of numbers via sets of extended fingers — a set of three, a set of two, a set of four — the pattern of a Social Security number, in this case Jones’s actual Social Security number. Thus the question of identity — what defines each of us as a human being, the features by which we are measured — was being performed. As Jones has said: “When I came into the art world in the ’70s, it was the time of Minimalism. It was extreme aesthetics. Extreme formalism.” In “EverybodyWorks,” Jones was adapting that aestheticism to his own, more political aims.

“We want to say that dance is supposed to be the freest medium of them all,” Jones told me after lunch, adopting as he sometimes does the first person plural, asking his listener to think along with him. “Dance is supposed to transcend language. Dance is supposed to be universal language. When I move my arm, we all have an arm: We can feel this. When I run, we can all feel it.”

“When you leap, we leave the ground,” I said.

“Yes. ‘Now what’s this?’ ” he said, assuming the voice of a dismayed audience member. “ ‘You’re leaving the ground but you’re talking about … 1942? Would you just shut up and let me enjoy leaving the ground?’ Well, no. You’ve left the ground many times. You can go see that all the time. But I’m going to expose you to my preoccupations. There’s something about that ephemeral moment on stage that I want to be as intimate as what we’ve had this afternoon.”

Dancers during a 1994 performance of the once-controversial dance-theater piece “Still/Here,” in which Jones incorporated the movements of terminally ill patients he had met in workshops he organized.
Beatriz Schiller/Courtesy of New York Live Arts

“A conversation?”

“A conversation.”

INSIDE, JONES’S mother-in-law slept on the couch, her iPad resting on her lap. Amelan worked at the dining table. Surrounded by family, Jones’s current artistic dialogue with himself and his audience mines that territory. “Analogy” comes from the Greekanalogos, meaning “proportional,” with respect to a thing or person’s share, allotment, lot. The importance of Dora’s story, Jones has said, is that she lived through a time of unspeakable barbarity, which took the lives of her younger sister and numerous other family members, and yet she emerged free of cynicism and bitterness. “I’m bitter as hell yet about slavery,” Jones said in a talk at Bard last year. “I’m really angry. I’ve accepted that I’m always going to be angry. And here you have this woman, whose mother’s side of her family were deported to Auschwitz,” he said, speaking now as if his mother-in-law were there with us. “How dare you, Dora, come out of that war and say people are basically good?”

The second part of “Analogy,” which will debut at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., in July, is equally focused on family. Called “Lance: Pretty a.k.a. the Escape Artist,” it explores the story of Jones’s nephew Lance Briggs — a boy who wanted to grow up to be a combination of Michael Jackson and his famous uncle. He could sing like an angel, won scholarships to dance with the San Francisco Ballet and the Ailey School, and had begun a successful career as a model and performer and songwriter. But it all unraveled quickly. A life of promise became plagued by drug use and sexual exploitation. Addiction led to prostitution, and then AIDS, and then hospitalization for much of last year, and paraplegia and, at 45, a life closing in on death.

“We say black lives matter,” Jones told me. “Well, this is a black life.” Jones’s sense of guilt at having failed to protect his nephew feels urgent, painful, pure. By telling Briggs’s story, Jones initially hoped “to jump-start the heart of an artist.” In the months that have unfolded since I began to watch Jones work on “Lance,” the story itself has changed. Lance was at last released from the hospital, where his uncle feared his life could end. Since the start of 2016, he has been collaborating with Jones, writing songs and raps for the production, as well as working on his own piece based on his life.

Jones in Charleston, S.C., wearing the costume from his solo work “Absence” in 1991.
Courtesy of Bill T. Jones

To tell his “Analogy” stories, Jones interviewed both Dora and Lance, setting down in type the events that he’d heard from them throughout their lives. Rather than simply translating them into dance, Jones has included his interviews with his subjects in the pieces. We hear Jones’s questions, and his subject’s answers, typically voiced not by Jones himself, but by the dancers.

“Now, at this late hour in the game,” Jones told me, “to be the artist who I am and with the kind of notoriety or reputation that I have, and to be doing something very vulnerable and exposed like this, just a step away from the indulgence of publishing one’s most intimate letters. … But there’s something about this device of these young anonymous people, that they are the channels for this hyper-personal discussion. That’s my experiment.” In other words, he is beginning to hand off control of the voice that has always been at the center of his work: his own. The change in method is a necessary evolution, if Jones’s work is to outlive him, and it is, indeed, an experiment, what Jones is reaching for. But it is experimental in the way of the seeker, rather than the provocateur, more prayer than sermon.

I’VE BEEN WATCHING Jones develop this new work for the past year, as it has grown in length and form. As for Jones’s early solo work, I know about it not because my 8-year-old self, living three blocks away, had the wherewithal to three-wheel-it over to Central Park in 1977. Rather, I know about it because Jones performed it for me at his house, after one of our lunches. He also performed another dance, called “21,” during our springlike November afternoon.

“Want to bring your pillow over?” Jones said.

Standing before me, on the weathered planks of his deck overlooking his manicured garden, Jones, in very worn wide-wale midnight-blue corduroys and a slate gray long-sleeved T-shirt, began to move. Jones has so often stripped his body bare or nearly as to make any reasonable human have to acknowledge its perfection, the act of its revelation less a brag or a dare than a statement of fact, as when the poet Christopher Logue, in his version of the “Iliad,” describes the sound that Achilles’s new armor made when it was first presented to him: “Made in Heaven.” As if to prove its perfection as an art object — Jones refers to his body as an “instrument” — the painter Keith Haring once used Jones himself as a canvas, painting even his penis, five bright-white stripes on a fancy black sock.

Jones’s mother-in-law, Dora Amelan, whose experiences as a Holocaust survivor inspired the first part of Jones’s latest work, “Analogy.”
Bjorn Amelan

As Jones began to move, he adopted 21 different poses, each something to decode, each a manifestation of something pure, moving from one to the next, elementally, as water flows down a mountain, pooling here, pooling there.

“I used to trust my instrument,” Jones had told me, earlier, “so much that I could throw down anywhere.” Point being, trust was gone; idea being, whatever this was, it wasn’t throwing down. “Now, you’re seeing what’s left of the old Billie Holiday. All you can hear is her phrasing,” Jones said afterward. As his spectator, I’d have to disagree.

The first time he worked through the poses, he was silent. The second, the same poses were introduced by numbers, from one to 21. The third time, the numbers were replaced by names, captions that let us know where the poses had come from — “One, Italian Renaissance, contrapposto, David. Two, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Three, Muhammad Ali” — each an icon, a stance a person could, in life, adopt. And then, as Jones began a fourth series through the movements, he began to collate the conversation we had been having into the dance, along with his passing thoughts, a stream of consciousness scissoring in of phrases said into the shapes he was adopting and discarding. What was most striking in these minutes was how his thoughts about his current project — about his nephew Briggs, who at that hour was lying paralyzed from the waist down in a Florida hospital bed — rose into the air, as Jones moved, with great tenderness, something achingly open and empty in the motions of his large calm hands. “I … I … I … I …” Jones now sang. “Durer. ‘The Expulsion,’ ” he said, as he adopted the pose of Adam expelled from Eden. “Go. He has to go soon. Don’t go to hell. Lance, do I want you to go?”

It occurred to me, watching Jones move, that, like all great attempts at artistic expression, his art manages to model compassion for the spectator — to make us feel what it’s like to be dealing with an intense feeling not our own, but one that becomes ours to deal with. When we add in the way in which Jones’s mind and body are changing, the dances themselves take on a new sort of vulnerability, a new riskiness far from the formalism of the ’70s. When performing “21” for his audience of one, Jones seemed less like a man intent upon confronting his audience than confronting himself. Watching him, I wondered where he got the strength to do all that looking.

Before the last lunch I had with Amelan and Jones, inside now, Jones reached his right hand to his husband’s left and his left to his guest’s right. As we sat in silence, I recalled something Jones had said to me on an earlier visit when we were talking about his ambitions for “Lance.” “I’m going to step out on the word — that term my mother speaks about, in her notion of the ecstatic nature of worship. ‘Child, you have to step out on the word.’ The word of God, she’s talking about.” Jones paused after he said it, wondering at it. “What is my word?” he asked, finally, as though that will always be the question.

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