Keeping Up with Bill T. Jones

The innovative and provocative choreography performed by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company was stirring up debate long before dance critic Arlene Croce denounced the troupe's most recent -- and most ambitious -- work. "I have not seen [choreographer] Bill T. Jones's Still/Here and have no plans to review it," Croce stated in the opening salvo of a vitriolic December 1994 New Yorker column. She went on to label the multimedia dance piece "literally undiscussable" and "beyond the reach of criticism" because it incorporates words, pictures, and gestures offered by terminally ill people for whom she could feel only pity. Apparently feelings of pity A or anticipated feelings of pity A would cause Croce's critical faculties to wither.

Whoever had the job of composing headlines for the New Yorker during Christmas Week 1994 had a well-developed sense of irony, whether intentional or not. The title of Croce's attack, "Discussing the Undiscussable," actually describes why Bill T. Jones's work continues to challenge and invigorate audiences. In the twenty-plus years since he began choreographing and dancing, Jones's willingness to discuss the undiscussable has driven his creation of consistently fresh dance and performance art.

Jones's work, which began in the Seventies with structuralist duets composed with his partner Arnie Zane (who died from AIDS-related complications in 1988), has evolved into increasingly more complex and more conceptual pieces requiring a corps of dancers. Subverting audience expectations about narrative time, about history, and about art, his dances have also tackled the charged issues of sexuality, race, power, and religion. In Still/Here, on-stage at the Jackie Gleason Center for the Performing Arts this Saturday only, Jones turns his discerning sensibilities to the subject of death, or, more accurately, life in the face of death.

"First and foremost, I'm not a doctor or a therapist," notes Jones, speaking over the phone from Toronto. "I'm an artist who is trying to talk about things that are big and important to us all."

Things such as death. Plainly put, we are all going to die. Yet few of us live with the specter of our mortality confronting us like a death sentence the way people diagnosed with a terminal illness do. As a man who has known he is HIV-positive for ten years, Jones exists with both the fear and the keen sense of life's fragility and urgency that such a diagnosis engenders. Though very much alive, Jones, who turns 44 years old next week, found himself enraged by people already taking him for dead. "Most of us, with or without HIV, are burdened with the perception, justified or not, that being HIV-positive equals death," Jones writes in his 1995 memoir Last Night on Earth, published by Pantheon. "This I refuse to accept. . . . [Yet] how do I deal with fear, anger, and pain? How can I find the strength to love, plan, create? How can I defeat the perception that I am an abnormality, cut off and doomed? To find the answers, I would go to the widest, most varied groups of travelers along the same road."

In 1992 Jones and media artist Gretchen Bender embarked on a series of fourteen Survival Workshops that took them to eleven cities in eighteen months. They met with people who had faced or were facing life-threatening illnesses. Jones asked workshop members to introduce themselves and to answer questions about their experiences. Then he encouraged each person to create a self-portrait through movement. Bender videotaped the participants.

With this foundation of testimony, gesture, and image, Jones set out to shape what would become a multilayered theatrical construct blending his choreography, large-screen projections of Bender's videotapes, commissioned music by classical composer Kenneth Frazelle and rock guitarist Vernon Reid, taped singing by Odetta, costumes by Liz Prince, and lighting by Robert Wierzel. The multiracial members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company -- known for their varied body types (short, very tall, athletic, portly) that defy the classical image of a dancer -- interpret the work (Jones does not appear in the piece).

As its title implies, the production is presented in two distinct parts. Where Still abstracts the language, movement, and images of survivors in order to express a universal inner struggle, Here shows how people make sense of that struggle in the everyday world. True to Jones's nonnarrative, relentlessly metaphoric methods, neither of the two parts conveys the testimony from the workshops in a traditional manner.

"I don't try to tell you what you should be understanding or getting from the work, but I lay it out for you like a painter or any abstract artist would," notes the choreographer. "[Since] I wanted to do [the piece] in the most intimate and personal means possible, I talked to real people, asking them to tell their stories. Now their stories are interesting only as much as they have resonance in relation to any story. The form of the piece fractures those narratives purposely so [the dance] doesn't get pinned down, doesn't get too small.

"The second section is much freer," Jones continues. "Maybe because you've seen the first section, you understand the language of groups, of people walking in close harmony. You understand the context but now you're in the realm of complete fiction, of another world."

Jones could never have created such a large-scale rumination on the subject of life and death without the benefit of collaboration with other artists, with dance presenters who organized the Survival Workshops around the nation, and with the nonartist workshop members. In fact Jones has often sought to collaborate with others throughout his career. "Collaboration for an artist like myself is a way that I can find kindred spirits, sometimes quite different from myself," he points out. "Together we make something greater than the sum of our parts."

For example, by going against the grain of the archetypal autocratic choreographer/artistic director, Jones often turns to his dancers and asks them to work out an artistic problem. "The results come back and I will take those results and it continues," he explains. "Maybe I'll bring in a third party and transmute those results further." Still, working so intimately with video in Still/Here required Jones to overcome what he terms "a blind spot. Arnie and I had done a lot of [video early on], but I think the feeling we had was that video and dance didn't mix because one would overshadow the other. But my friend Gretchen Bender is committed to [using] mass media as the most important way to cope with this century. We dialogued, and she encouraged me that video would work on the stage."

That kind of flexibility has served Jones well, enabling him throughout his life to cross boundaries and confound categorization. One of twelve children born to poor black migrant workers, he began studying dance at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Binghamton in 1970. There he fell in love with Zane. The two forged a personal and artistic partnership that would last for seventeen years. Along with dancer Lois Welk, the couple ran the American Dance Asylum, a community of artists that devised multimedia dance performances, often drawing on "contact improvisation," a movement technique that combines tightly structured timing with improvisation. By 1982, having parted with Welk and moved to New York City, the two men formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. From "work rooted in our personalities," explains Jones in his memoir, referring to their evolving style, "our choreography moved toward the depiction of a community, a society." Not long afterward Zane began to take ill; Jones took care of him until Zane died in 1988.

Although devastated by the loss of his partner, Jones continued to create, choreographing close to two dozen dances in the past seven years, including 1989's memorable, grief-inspired Absence, dedicated to Zane's parents, and 1990's Last Summer at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land, a three-and-a-half hour multimedia tour de force that featured Jones's mother Bessie in a pivotal role. The piece asserted our collective need for identity, community, and connection.

Jones has yet to slow down. Even as Still/Here tours, he's been busy conceiving a series of dances to music composed by Kurt Schwitters, the late German Dadaist performance artist. The music, Jones explains, "is all presyllabic utterances in sonata form. It sounds like early twentieth-century modernism but it's very, very entertaining. I'm making a dance to it as a way of being free of meaning for a while," he adds, laughing. Also on tap are dances to Dylan Thomas's poetry and to music by composer Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder and artistic director of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

"I learned a lot from the Survival Workshops for the Still/Here project about being in the moment," Jones says about his own grappling with life in the face of death. "And it's really hard. It's a discipline. You don't get it once. You have to practice it every day. But what else are we here to do?"

Still/Here. Choreographed and directed by Bill T. Jones; with Arthur Aviles, Lawrence Goldhuber, Gabri Christa, Odile Reine-Adelaide, and Daniel Russell. February 10. For more information call 673-7300 or 538-2121, or see our "Calendar" listings.

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