Bow Down, Mister:
Bill T. Jones Celebrates Brooklyn
by Tony Phillips
“I feel like I wandered into this with my eyes half opened,” Bill T. Jones explains of his involvement with the Broadway musical Spring Awakening and subsequent Tony win for best choreography, “I was curious about the commercial theater. I had just done something at the New York Theater Workshop called The Seven with another great director who had a lot of respect for my tradition and she made a lot of room for it.”
But heretofore, Jones was more famous for a show he passed on — Disney’s Lion King — than shows he’s worked on and he’s careful not to use the B-word, referring to it instead as commercial theater. But he does not agree that working in the commercial theater means one has to get down on their knees. “I think people say that,” Jones argues, “like I’ve said it: they don’t really know what they’re talking about and they have a limited experience doing it. There are probably a lot of night mare stories but we have to always remember that Broadway is about making a product.”
He explains that Spring Awakening’s director had a lot to do with his decision to be part of this product that was six-years on the assembly line. “Michael Mayer, after he got over some rockiness over what the role of the choreograph would be,” Jones explains, “really understood how it could sell a story and the results are there.”
They certainly are. Imagine the white bread kids from Disney’s High School Musical singing and dancing their way through an episode fraught with sadomasochistic sex, abortion, rape, suicide and incest. It’s rough going, but then whose teenager years weren’t? Jones keeps things moving with antic, almost semiotic movement somewhere between the 19th century Germany of the show and Paris Is Burning that miraculously doesn’t look awkward, even when being performed by teenage boys.
But even in this context, Jones manages to maintain his own signature choreographic language throughout. He again credits his director Michael Mayer. “He’s been watching the companies pure dance work,” Jones explains. “He actually came all the way up to Harlem to see a piece called The Table Project.” And it’s that 2001 piece that almost seems expanded upon for Spring Awakening, allowing the dozen, fresh-faced teens assembled to use the chairs provided for each character as an elevated go-go platform as these kids stomp their way through this good, old-fashioned rumination on sex and death.
So has the award altered the trajectory of the choreographer’s career? Jones, again, incredibly precise with language, takes exception to his work being classified as such. “It’s a life in the theater,” he corrects, “a life in the world in modern dance, but yes, everything changes. My age changes, my company moved to Harlem, everything changes, but Spring Awakening is not a company work. My company is my child, everything else is an outside project and so far that equation has not changed.”
But even Jones will cop to a pretty fabulous run in with Tommy Tune at a Tony nominees’ luncheon. “He came over and sat down,” Jones remembers, “I was already impressed. But he wanted to tell me he thought my work was the strongest work on the Broadway stage that season. He said I brought an entirely different sensibility to it, but then he said, you must know, this doesn’t always work. The implication is that it happens, people try different things once in a while, but it doesn’t always work so we lucked out I think.”
And though he’s cautious of the new, he’s ready to have another go at what he calls the commercial theater. “Everyone is talking about the new all the time,” he says, “but I don’t think people understand that most things have been done or at least tried. He’s also cautious about classifying a project he’s been working on for several years as new. “Even before Spring Awakening was a reality, I was already in discussion with a producer who brought me a project about the life of Afrobeat inventor Fela Kuti. So we’ve been working now for several years on writing a book and developing a show around Fela’s life. I’m going back in August to do that.”
But before he gets back to Fela, he’s going back to Brooklyn. His company will return to headline the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival in Prospect Park on July 26 with the challenging, ten-dancer piece entitled Another Evening: I Bow Down. “Brooklyn falls into that category of summer outdoor performance,” Jones explains, “we did this same piece in Central Park and it was an urban American audience which brought out all the things that were urban and American about what we were doing.”
“That was like coming home,” he explains, “I expect that Brooklyn will be the same.” Having performed in Brooklyn before, one thing Jones hopes will be different this time is the “little kids riding by on bicycles and throwing stones at the stage.” He laughs heartily and says, “You know, that’s to be expected.” He then promises that the show will be a once in a lifetime event because the Wagner and Bagatov score will be offset with the Bronx-based hardcore band Regain the Heart Condemned performing live.
So even though he’s digging up a classic, Jones defines his organization as means of creating new work and this Brooklyn season is no exception since Jones often creates as he’s revisiting. Witness his recent revival of 1994’s watermark dance Still/Here. Jones fiddled with it so much it’s now titled The Phantom Project: Still/Here Looking On.
Another Evening: I Bow Down will be paired with the curtain raiser Blauvelt Mountain and although this piece is also classic Jones, what’s new here is he’s turned it over to two of his dancers where he used to dance it himself with his boyfriend, but he’s premiered new works for himself even after this terrible rumble about his retirement from the concert stage made the rounds.
“I never said that,” Jones laughs about the rumors of his going the way of Cher after his last solo piece entitled Chaconne. He blames the retirement rumor on something his publicist slipped into a release. “My intention is to find a way to keep dancing as long as I can,” he explains, “the rigors of trying to keep up with a company where the average age is about twenty-five can be counterproductive for a man that’s now in his fifties. I want a safe harbor, a place where I can go and explore those things that are my own strengths and my own passions.”
A topic Jones has always been passionate about is the reading of race and he brings up another recent, full-company work inspired entitled Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger. Jones explains, “We’ve been discussing the diversity of this company and its leadership role and I wanted to test that. Can we bring forward a work from another medium that has troubling resonance for our very self-conscious era? This work uses the word nigger freely, but it’s also a work that has basic fundamentalist notions about religion in it.”
The last time he presented this narrative, taken from a Flannery O’Connor short story, Jones tapped company friend Susan Sarandon to “bring forth the story and have it read in the best possible way” so that Jones could “juxtapose the logic of my company, our racial logic, our sexual logic — anybody can dance with anybody — and movement that is basically abstract.”
Even though the piece had its premiere a few seasons ago, also in Brooklyn, the current debate over the N-word in popular culture makes it seem almost ahead of its time. “When you hear the word nigger,” Jones explains, ”and you’re looking at a stage where there’s Chinese and Mexican and what have you, can you answer the question who is the nigger on that stage?” Surely, it’s a dangerous question. But risk doesn’t scare Jones, rather it’s what moves him. “Do people dare own what they truly feel about race?” he asks, “I say everything we feel about race is a lie.”
A big part of gaining the momentum necessary to make this risky new work is presenting popular pieces from the repertory. But this is not to say that Jones’ repertory isn’t dotted with scandal. However, Jones is nothing if not a charming man. For example, he was literally able to charm the pants off his audience when he presented 1990’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land and used volunteers from the community he was presenting in to join him in the piece to dance nude.
And it’s this natural charisma that’s helped him weather attacks, such as dance critic Arlene Croce who, sight unseen, dismissed his piece Still/Here in The New Yorker as “victim art.” That piece, which incorporates videotaped testimonials of the terminally ill, remains strong enough to make the cut as repertory. And while The New Yorker is still widely read, Croce was never heard from again.
So besides offering occasion to gloat, what does looking back at these older works do for things like long term planning? “It does make one start to think differently about those things,” Jones, who’s been shopping for a permanent home for his company in Harlem, admits. “The idea is very much on the table and we expect to have a place within the next three or four years,” he beams, “we were looking at old theaters, but it will probably be a new building with studios, offices and a black box theater and it will be on the cultural corridor of Harlem: 125th Street.”
It all sounds a million years away from the SUNY-Binghamtom freshman who met the love of his life on Saint Patrick’s Day 1971. That man, Arnie Zane, would lure Jones from university to Amsterdam and into a seventeen-year relationship that was one of the most fruitful in modern dance. The company not only bears Zane’s name to this day, but still dances some of his works in repertory.
So what does it take to make the cut as a Bill T. Jones dancer? For Jones it boils down to a simple question that each dancer must answer. “I ask them what is at stake when you’re dancing? Are you here to be fabulous and look beautiful and maybe find a husband or is this dancing something essential to your life?”
Perhaps it’s that his own family is so large — Jones is the tenth of twelve children born to migrant farm working parents — that the metaphor of family is so readily available. “Bill can harangue,” he laughs on the question of choreographic style, “I do get on a soapbox with them sometimes and I do push, but I also dote. I know there are people in my company now who could be my children. That’s a privilege as a gay man. Because, no, I don’t have any offspring, but I have a nurturing impulse and there’s plenty to nurture.”
And if you’re willing to accept the metaphor of dancers as children, then Jones is turning out choreographers from his company like a champion baby-making machine. “From the beginning, this company has always been responsive to who was doing the work,” he explains, “I’ve turned out so many choreographers because they were in the company. My dancers are constantly asked to solve problems. You ask, what would you do in this situation? How do we make this transition? What do you think is going on? I don’t think that’s so original.”
But it’s clearly something his alumna thank him for as many of them returned to recreate original roles for Jones recent twentieth anniversary season. Sean Curran, who’s been exploring cultural identity with his own company, is one such dancer. And he joined Jones graduate Arthur Aviles, who’s danced nude so many times he might as well just make a permanent lobby placard warning theatergoers that his choreography contains a beautifully flouncing penis.
And then there’s former Jones dancers Lawrence Goldhuber and Alexandra Beller, who picked up his theme of body diversity and continue to make certain that dancers with big butts have a place outside the random Diddy video. Is it all making a difference? “I don’t know,” Jones replies, “has it changed the ballet world? You could probably still count the number of black dancers dancing in the major companies in this country. I mean, they are there, but are there significantly that much more, never mind women who have big breasts or butts. There’s none.”
Still, it can’t all be that bleak. This is a man who danced gloriously through the Reagan-era. A man who’s seen picket lines outside his performance venues. Does our current climate feel like progress or déjà vu? “Maybe this is a nostalgic feeling,” Jones admits, “but there was more of a hopefulness back then. Now there’s a sense of being part of an overwhelming juggernaut of events that makes one feel less and less empowered.”
Still, Jones points to his own company and laughs, “These kids embrace Target. They embrace H&M. They know fashion, each brand name. I was macrobiotic when I was their age. When we go to Europe, they go looking for a McDonalds. They don’t have that knee jerk response that my generation did to corporate America. I wish they would, but I tell myself, Bill don’t fall into the trap that older people fall into. The world did not stop with your youth. It continues. If you’re going to be a vital dance institution, you’ve got to keep that young blood moving through there. Keep it honest. Let it be devoted to a certain set of principles, but listen to them and let them help you build the organization.”