Three decades ago, choreographer Bill T. Jones jolted the New York dance scene. Bucking the prevailing stripped-down postmodernism, he and his partner Arnie Zane created sensational dances collaborating with composers, fashion designers, and visual artists. A new queer aesthetic emerged that was anything but minimalistic.
When I worked at Walker Art Center (1988–1996), I presented Jones’s company on multiple occasions. During this period, the AIDS pandemic ravaged his world, killing lover Arnie Zane (1988) and collaborator Keith Haring (1990), as well as scores of friends, colleagues and dancers. Consequently Jones’ work became politicized. Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990) had him searching for hope as a gay black man in America. Its final resolving tableau included 52 nude bodies of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, and genders.
The conceit of this work proved electrifying, as it included his core company augmented with local dancers on tour. Everybody had to own the nudity, claim the identity politics of survival and transcendence. The work was rapturously received by those who saw it—and picketed by those who feared it.
Jones continued mining his grief and rage in Still/Here (1994). He developed this piece in workshops with people facing terminal illnesses. Newsweek called it “a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of twentieth-century dance seems ensured.” Arlene Croce refused to see it, but wrote about it in the New Yorker, dismissing it as “victim art.” No one was neutral.
Jones continues to create iconoclastic dances across a vast array of aesthetic explorations. His collaborators are eclectic: Cassandra Wilson, Orion String Quartet, Chamber Society of Lincoln Center, Fred Hersch, Jenny Holzer, Vernon Reid, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Toni Morrison, and Jessye Norman. The company has performed in more than 200 cities in 40 countries.
Commissions and honorary degrees, a MacArthur “genius” award, and the National Medal of the Arts ffrom President Obama have not tempered this firebrand provocateur. Outside his own company, Jones has created dances for Alvin Ailey, Boston Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet, and Berlin Opera Ballet. He directed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and won two Tony Awards for his choreography in Spring Awakening and FELA! Operatic collaborations include Houston Grand Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Munich Biennale, Boston Lyric Opera, and New York City Opera.
As a writer, Jones published his memoir, Last Night on Earth, in 1995 and a children’s book, Dance, in 1998. He also contributed toContinuous Replay: The Photography of Arnie Zane in 1999. This month, Princeton University Press released his Story/Time: The Life of an Idea, a book about the genesis of Story/Time, a dance work commissioned by the Walker and Peak Performances at Montclair State University and performed at the Walker in February 2012. (For more on Story/Time, watch this video interview between Jones and Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator of performing arts).
As Jones writes in the acknowledgements: “Story/Time is a meditation on John Cage’s Indeterminacy, a 1958 work in which Cage read ninety stories, each one minute long. … Engaging with this seminal work allowed me to examine and interrogate a system of thought and practice grounded in ideas held by many—myself included—striving to understand how Eastern thought, liberation philosophy, and art could be used to redefine reality for both the maker and his or her audience.”
In advance of his November 4–14 performances of Story/Time at New York Live Arts, I talked with Jones about his new book and projects under development.
John Killacky: Story/Time is such a beautiful homage to John Cage. You are this hot, politically engaged, out gay artist. I think of Cage as this cool, philosophical, quiet, disengaged from the world, theoretical genius. Can you talk about his influence on you and in particular this project?
Bill T. Jones: He literally represented for me everything cool and removed and sophisticated at a time when I was trying to wend my way into the art world. There was a woman that had known Jasper [Johns] and John Cage. She tried to get them interested in what Arnie and I were doing. They were like “No way!” We were too “obvious.” We were too “in your face.” I always felt a little hurt by that. We did meet John later through a mutual friend. I had dinner with John and Merce [Cunningham] and went to a show with him and got to know him as a man. I couldn’t be in that club, but I realized there was a lot to love in him. This book is trying to come to grips with my need to be in the modernist cool club and acceptance that I will not be in that club. You have to build your ideas on your forebearers, and it is sort of Freudian because you are fighting with your father. What happens when I put on that suit of clothing is who I am.
Jones’s staging of Story/Time began a few years back when he decided to return to performing. Building off of Cage’s storytelling, he created a work in which he reads 70 one-minute stories (drawn from more than 170) while his dancers perform around him. Movement sequences are excerpted from existing repertory, rearranged on the day of performance to create a unique work for that evening. Composer and lighting and scenic designers improvise alongside. Jones was then invited to participate in the Toni Morrison Lecture Series at Princeton.
Killacky: How did this beautiful book come into being?
Jones: The deal with the Morrison Lecture people was we would do three lectures that would result in a book. I had been struggling with this work, trying to mesh these thoughts and ideas of John Cage with my own theatricality and the way my company moves. The process had been so strange and challenging and scary. I thought the lectures would be a great opportunity to talk theoretically about it in the first and third lectures, and show a version of it in one of those wood-paneled rooms in an august university. It felt very claustrophobic, very much of a throwback to a world that I’ve only seen in movies. I never went to an Ivy League school. We set this thing up as if it were site-specific and emulated something that he [Cage] would have been able to put forward in 1958: sitting alone at a table in a room and reading one story after another. The difference was we had a very sophisticated sound design, a rudimentary lighting design, and Bjorn Amelan drawing on the chalkboards before an academic audience. It was wonderful.
Included in the publication of Story/Time are gorgeous photographs of the work in performance as well as 60 of Jones’s masterful stories, weaving in childhood reminiscences and tales from touring around the world. Observing the mundane, Jones reaches for the profound. Vignettes with Virgil Thompson, Abbey Lincoln, Louise Nevelson, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor are peppered throughout, as is John Cage—whose theories disrupt, provoke, and inspire him.
Killacky: Your company is still performing Story/Time?
Jones: The work is part of our touring repertory. For the upcoming New York shows, we decided do the classic version and then to get rid of some of the “crafting” and strip the place down a couple of times. And we have guest artists: Kathleen Chalfont [Angels in America, Wit], Lois Welk [founder of American Dance Asylum] and Theaster Gates [conceptual artist]. They wrote some of their own stories; we’ll read mine as well and talk about a personal history.
Killacky: You juggle multiple projects at any given time. Can you talk about some in development?
Jones: The new one for the company is a three-part work influenced by W. C. Sebald’s The Emigrants, the story of a Jewish boy who was a “valet” to a rich German boy; an oral history of my husband Bjorn’s 94-year-old Jewish mother, who survived the war by working in an internment camp in eastern France; and my wild nephew Lance, who had drug problems and was a hustler on Polk Street [San Francisco].
In terms of the commercial art world, I would love to be able to talk with you about it. There are a couple projects on the table, but you know how the producers are: we will see which ones go the distance. One is a major motion picture from some years back that was very successful; now the filmmaker is making it into a musical that I am choreographing.
Jones: For the theater work, there is: “Can I do it?” “Can I make an entertaining thing that has some integrity?” So that’s maybe my pride. There is also hopefully my retirement; because in the dance world, you will not retire with what the dance world has to offer you. The company is the child that Arnie [Zane] and I had. Every time I make a new work, I get this excitement in my chest. I keep thinking, “Ah, this is the way I understand the world.” This is my religion. Something keeps pulling me forward that has to do with art-making as a spiritual activity.
John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.