Profile: Bill T. Jones, a master of modern dance
After receiving Kennedy Center Honors, Bill T. Jones remembers his long career as a dancer and choreographer, and he discusses his future plans.
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The clarity of his outspokenness barely masks the fact that he cares very deeply about his family, his friends and associates, and his country. "When I dance, as when I talk, I strive for candor," Jones says.Skip to next paragraph
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The Kennedy Center Honors capped his annus mirabilis, a year of marvels: three more Tony Awards for the Afro-beat Broadway musical "FELA!" which he choreographed and directed, to add to his 2007 Tony for "Spring Awakening." In January, "FELA!" was broadcast live to 375 screens in 21 countries from the stage of London's National Theatre.
But Jones has not stopped wanting more. Returning early last month to the world of contemporary dance, he staged three works from those early years of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. "Body Against Body," a revival of pieces he created and performed with Zane, premièred last month at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. Jones cast a man and a woman, rather than two men, in one of the duets.
"Arnie's no longer here. I'm not the same person. These works must now be seen for their ideas," Jones remarks, speaking by telephone for two interviews, and in person during the Boston weekend.
The idea of a dance studio was new to Jones when he met Zane and attended his first class in 1971, a year after he entered the State University of New York, Binghamton. He remembers dancing as a child with his brothers and sisters in their living room. "We were making up steps," he says. Even after starting classes, "I didn't dance with any great master," he recalls. "There were a lot of dance traditions besides the white man's modern dance."
Zane and Jones became a couple and collaborators on stage. Their works followed a path blazed by Merce Cunningham and the Judson Church experimentalists. Athletic moves and everyday tasks, stripped of décor and artifice, story and characterizations, became the stuff of their performances, enlivened by movement discovered through contact improvisation.
Since then, the dances that Jones has presented have ranged from provocative solos to pageantlike evenings, including works as controversial as "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" (1992), which dealt with issues of race, morality, history, and individual freedom of choice. "Last Supper" culminated in a finale that featured 50 to 100 nude bodies on stage – Jones included – chosen from volunteers of all ages in each city where the work was mounted during a two-year tour. The mass of critical approval was accompanied by an equal volume of protests. It was denounced by the Vatican.