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“‘Free At Last?’ Please. Who Is Free?” Choreographer Bill T. Jones Reflects on a Half Century of Creative Work

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Bill T. Jones, 69, is a choreographer, MacArthur Genius Fellowship Award winner, two-time Tony award winner, author and cofounder of the Bill T. Jones /Arnie Zane Dance Company. He’s performing with his own company for the first time in 15 years from Sept. 28 to Oct. 9 in a new work, Deep Blue Sea, commissioned by New York City’s Park Avenue Armory. He spoke with TIME about how he stays creative, why he doesn’t like to use the word “dance,” and the how the events of the last 18 months have influenced his art.

You’re still clearly burning to create after many years. How do you keep that fire stoked? When I am moved by a work of art, when I’m moved by a political situation, I immediately begin to think in my language: movement, space and time. So it is still helping me understand how to live. Not to mention that I have a company that must be fed. We’re still fighting for the importance of this art form in public life.

One of the concerns of your new piece, Deep Blue Sea, is “the pursuit of an elusive we.” What does that mean? We the People, we shall overcome, we hold these truths. That is part of everyday parlance, and it’s quite irritating. I am a Black American who truly grew up thinking that we shall overcome, that there was a ‘we’ that transcended ethnicity and race. And the more I have lived, the more I see those things are so deeply entrenched. So what’s this we? This piece is a poem, a metaphorical rendering of wrestling with those stories, using iconographic texts. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 93, and Martin Luther King’s 1963 great March on Washington speech, “I Have a Dream.”

What do those two things have in common? They are iconic texts that define the American sense of our community. Both those documents have grown dusty, taken for granted. And they must be returned to regularly.

This piece was commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory before 2020. Did the racial justice reckoning and pandemic we’ve undergone change the way that you thought about it? Did the piece change? Did I change? I know that I was angry as hell, in a way I haven’t been angry in years. I know that I was and am still struggling with the psychological effects of the recognition that systemic racism and white supremacy is very much the world I have known my whole life. I’ve lived in an apartheid state my whole life. This is the person who was 17 years old at Woodstock dropping acid and saying, ‘We are not our bodies.’ And yet now everywhere I look, I see race. Everywhere I look, now I see identity. I have to police my language, even more than I was doing two years ago. All of those things were made more acute in the environment of the last two years, so it has made the ideas behind the piece more acute.

You did another Armory performance, Afterwardsness, during the pandemic, created within the constraints of social distancing. What did you learn from that experience? The power of gathering. People came and when the first movements began in the music, people wept, people were so moved. That’s power; we take it for granted—we did before COVID. That was a big one to learn. I learned something about myself. How does that assault on our bodies on a biological level, reflect, live with, cohabitate with something like systemic racism? How can they all be happening at the same time? The piece was trying to talk about those paradoxes and contradictions.

Am I right in saying that you have a sort of a special way that you talk with performers and if so, how did you develop it? I’m basically a formalist and formalism demands the isolation of certain elemental languages, symbols, and then their organization and reorganization. Part of the language you see is made from the many dancers who have come through, and they’ve each contributed a shape. And that makes for quite a long laundry list of abstract shapes. Formalism says by combining and recombining them, contextualizing them in terms of what’s being heard, musically, that’s where meaning is found. Can it serve the purpose of entertaining the eye, almost like watching a puzzle. And can it also go deeper than that and connect to languages that are beyond language? These are all questions I’ve been asking my whole artistic life as an adult, something like 40 years now. And every new piece is a challenge. If you see 45 gestures, made independently, strung together with various musicality and rhythms, against a beautiful song, and then the same gestures juxtaposed to a speech about civil rights, are they the same gestures? And I say they are and they are not.

Mark Morris said, “I can be daunting, because I’m scared to death.” Can you relate to that? I can relate very well. I come from field workers, people who understood they are not that far off from the lash. I tried to explain this to my dancers. The young say, “That’s your pathology.” I had young Black people say to me a few years ago, jokingly, but I think they were nudging me, “we need to take a Black power nap.”

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You’re performing with your own company for the first time in 15 years. Why now? I am probably as much an intellectual speaking presence now as I am a physical dancing presence. But I don’t want to yet give up the fact that the young people in the company and I are bodies together making a body-based art form. It’s hard, but I have to try one more time. Can I sweat with them? Can I learn something? For me. For them.

A decade or so ago, you were you were suffering a little bit from depression. How’s that going? I still have my bouts with it. I think I understand better what it is. And I think I’m up to the challenge. I’m terribly privileged. I’m in love. I have a person who loves me dearly, makes me a wonderful home. I have a lot of reasons to live. And one thing that depression tells you is that you should not. But you have to be vigilant.

It’s no mean feat to keep an experimental dance company going for as many years as you have, especially financially. Do you have a secret? Well, I hardly think of us as a dance company. I have been trying to build an ensemble that can handle movement, text, and music with facility. That’s a goal, building a new contraption, a new company. The clarity of that mission, personally, keeps me on my toes. It’s sometimes extremely daunting, but I know I’m trying to make something new for myself.

How has it been working with the architect who’s designing the set, Liz Diller? It’s an honor to work with her. We’ve gone through Bill’s male ego. I think that there’s a mutual respect that has developed since coming back after COVID. We’ve had our meltdowns and so on. But I think she truly wants to do this piece with me. It’s not naturally where she lives but she actually has seen the way that the world changes. And she’s sort of looking at me with respect. ‘Okay, Bill, where do you want to go?’ And I respect her for that.

There are 90 community members in this performance. Did you teach them to dance? Can we find another word other than dance? Our tradition is body based expression. So you do not have to know how to tendu or turn or stretch or anything, you have to be able to understand physical problems and solve them. You have to be able to get up and in and out of the floor, you have to be able to change modalities of emotional expression. How does anger work? How does pure shape work? There’s a profound meaning in people lowering each other to the ground and helping each other up. The metaphors are there. But they’ve got to understand the technique from inside. Even when it’s not perfect, it is something. We call it milling. And it’s a profound thing to see.

You don’t like to call what you do dance. Why? I feel that dance in the culture is very close to mime. People feel it is an indulgence, something esoteric, or little girls in pink. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m doing a body-based investigation of art-making. You have to find a whole other way to talk about it. It’s not about entertaining you, although it can be. It’s not about getting you sexually aroused, although it can be. It’s trying to really rethink what this basic instrument that we all share is capable of: two arms, two legs. Let’s see, if we get together in a community with clear instructions: What happens?

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What would the 70-year-old version of you tell the 20-year-old? The world does not care if you want to be an artist. You will always be full of doubt. You will very likely never make a satisfying living. You may get hurt. And yet, it is exhilarating. When it works when you are firing on all cylinders, and there is a population that is leaning in to see, that can be rewarding in a way you can’t imagine.

A lot of your work is very personal. You did a piece about your husband’s mother. You did a piece about your nephew who struggled with addiction. Is that cathartic for you? Or is it because your family is what you find most interesting? Every artist needs some material some spark. I try a lot of things. [These stories] are available to me. There are some things that are always with one. What is available to you that is deep and true? So that personal story: my nephew died last month. He was a very, very sick man when we were making that piece. And the piece was trying to be about an intergenerational conversation. The piece was trying to be about my holding him and saying, your life was not pointless. That personal was at the service of proving something to myself. Once again, what’s worth doing in this world?

A TIME magazine cover in 1994 with your face on it, had the cover line “Black Artists Are Free at Last.” How do you feel about that cover line now? Lord have mercy. To say it hasn’t changed would be wrong. I grew up in a world that I call the white avant-garde. Now that white avant-garde has a lot more color to it. And that’s different. But “free at last?”, please, don’t get me started. Who is free? I am privileged. I have a nice car. Tonight I’ll sleep in a comfortable bed. And I’m working. My house is being renovated. Do I still have pain in my heart about George Floyd? Do I still feel naked and scared in the street? Yes, I do. Voting rights are being rolled back. That’s real. So which world is it? Free at last? Or are we still living in apartheid? Both, I suppose.

Do you mourn the ability to dance as you used to? I do sometimes wish I had that motor I used to have; the impulse to move, the will to move and the ability to move are all one when you’re young. Now it has to be more thought about, which is its own kind of goal.

And do you, when you’re alone, just for the joy, still dance? I dance only when I’m very happy. When I am at a party with a big living room and we’re all having a lovely meal and someone puts on some music that I particularly like, Schubert or something like that. And I let the music course through and it’s heaven. It’s for them. It’s an improvisation; will never be seen again.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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