Last fall, before an audience at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, choreographer Bill T. Jones confessed that he's not an easy person to deal with. "I think I push buttons," he said.
Indeed. The eloquent dancemaker and his Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which are winding down a multiyear touring celebration of the company's history called "The Phantom Project," have been presenting works for more than two decades that provoke, mystify, enthrall, and transport audiences. An advocate on a number of issues pertaining to race, social politics, gender, sexuality, and religion, Jones is outspoken and opinionated. That fervor carries over to his work, too. The 1994 production of "Still/Here," for example, confronted audiences with issues of death, survival, and hope. "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" (1990) took on Harriet Beecher Stowe's stereotyping of blacks.
Jones's passion is tempered, however, with vulnerability and doubt, from which arises the beauty of his art. In fact, the most consistent thread in the choreographer's works over the past 20 years is the need to ask questions - lots of them. Some go to the heart of who we are as human beings. In Jones's words: "Are we all happy here with the way things are? Do we want to change what we can change? What are we afraid of? Does beauty exist? What does it look like? When people come [to the performances], they want to experience something transformative. I want it as well. That's what I'm looking for."
Gray and bespectacled, hobbling from knee surgery, Jones is still one of the most dashingly charismatic figures in the dance world. But he admits that 20 years of developing new works while trying to maintain a repertory in a competitive marketplace have been exhausting. As he settles into the next decade of artistic life, he is taking stock and looking for new avenues of expression. He is toying with the idea of augmenting the company with actors, singers, and laypeople from the community.
"Yes, the company is a wonderful tool, a laboratory, and I love the sense of community," he asserts in a recent phone interview. "But can it be everything I need? I don't think so. I want to do theater, and it pays [for] me to go off by myself. I need to look for new collaborators and new environments. These are exciting questions that the 20th anniversary has pushed to the fore."
An improviser by nature, Jones creates most of his work through the natural impetus of his own body, generating movement that is fluidly seductive, athletically vigorous, and dramatically powerful. He then transforms, amplifies, and shapes, playing off the energy and personality of his dancers. Jones is roughly twice the average age of his dancers - an internationally diverse group of all shapes and sizes who he treasures as "a community of disparate individuals willing to present a vision of solidarity in a fractious world."
He tries to maintain the same rich environment of confrontation and dialogue that he had with Arnie Zane, his partner, who died in 1988. He is committed to keeping Zane's works in the repertoire so that younger dancers can grasp the company's history and style.
"The company was a grand undertaking for us both and we didn't even know it," Jones recalls. "Arnie's early death is something I refuse to see as a tragedy that destroyed a dream. The dream continues on."
On tour, the troupe is offering a program of old and new works ranging from a 1977 work by Zane to Jones's most recent button-pushing opus, "Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger," based on a short story by Flannery O'Connor. The newer piece, a 40-minute dance narrated by two speakers and set to a score by Daniel Bernard Roumain, is a scathing indictment of learned racism that is both darkly funny and heartbreaking.
After several years of eschewing specific context in favor of pure movement, "The Artificial Nigger" is a throwback to earlier, more socially provocative work that embraced a sense of narrative. Jones explains, "When the story popped up in front of me I felt two things: sadness and great excitement."
The choreographer decided to make a statement by ignoring gender and color during the casting process. Jones envisioned the piece as a signature work for the 20th anniversary because it was an opportunity to tell a difficult story about race with a multinational company.
"This was a way of saying, 'See, you're a company that stands for how things have changed in the larger world,' " he says. "This is not just art talking about art. This is a well-constructed, handsome work of art taking on big questions about social progress."
But in the final analysis, Jones's work is as deeply personal as it is socially aware.
"A lot of the engine that has driven me exists between two polarities: my incredible [irateness] and impatience with the world, and an intense desire to be loved, to not be alienated, to be connected and worthy of this world," Jones says. "Anger and desire for inclusion - I feel those two forces ricocheting in me always when I am in front of the public. Artists feel alienated as long as they don't work to bridge concerns, to make connections. I think many artists create a separate reality that pulls them away from the world. I'm asking, 'How do you maintain a dialogue with the world?' "
Jones hopes to encourage audiences to take stock of what is magic in a "mean-spirited" world.
"I'm trying to find ways to make rituals that acknowledge that we are part of each other and part of something bigger than our own egos," he says.