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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.

By Iris FangerContributor / March 14, 2011

Bill T. Jones, director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, relaxes in the ICA theater in Boston.

Melanie Stetson Freeman /Staff

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Two men are dancing on stage, the small, tightly coiled white man darting around the 6-foot-1 black man who projects an elegant, riveting charisma. The year is 1981; they have been performing together for eight years. However it is still new that they are partnering each other in ways that men usually treat women – lifting each other, trading tender looks. Although there are established black companies in America by now, seldom are black dancers and white dancers seen side by side.

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Bill T. Jones, the tall man, and Arnie Zane, his partner, talk out loud as they move, pushing another boundary. Zane recites a speech in Dutch, learned when he spent a period in Amsterdam. Jones recites the names of his 11 brothers and sisters.

Now, 30 years later, Jones is still speaking his mind, only this time as a trailblazer at the confluence of the avant-garde and commercial theater. You cannot miss his presence: His company will be performing in Arizona, California, North Carolina, Virginia, and New York this spring, while "FELA!" – his Broadway musical – starts its world tour in Lagos, Nigeria, in April and continues in London in the summer.

Born William Tass Jones in Florida to migrant workers, his family moved north when he was 3. Jones reaches back often to memories of family, race, and his mother's sustaining religious beliefs as he choreographs his works. Zane died in 1988 from complications of AIDS, but the company they formed in 1982 continues to bear his name.

Last year, Jones stood in the spotlight at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to receive the nation's honors, along with Oprah Winfrey, Sir Paul McCartney, and others. Jones was recognized for his accomplishments as a striking performer and creator in the uniquely American art forms of modern dance and musical theater, not to mention the fearless reflection of political concerns in his work.

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