Bill T. Jones Is About to Make People Angry. Again. - New York TimesSeptember 18, 2005
Bill T. Jones Is About to Make People Angry. Again.
By GINIA BELLAFANTE
EARLY one evening, at the end of a long rehearsal for his latest piece, "Blind Date," the choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones made his way to one of the soaring windows in the studio he has been occupying over Times Square and changed his clothes, concealing no part of his fabled musculature from public appreciation.
Among the 20-year-old dancers scurrying about him, were those trying to banish the aches from their rotator cuffs or maneuver bandages on their lower joints. Mr. Jones is 53, and although he endured a knee operation last year, his body bears no signs of occupational hazard, no evidence of illness (he has been H.I.V.-positive for two decades), no suggestion that he is squarely situated in middle life. Physical modesty would seem an unreasonable demand to make of him.
Mr. Jones has carried himself through the rarefied world of dance with an air of enlivened majesty: speaking out, speaking often and, when speaking of himself, occasionally speaking in the third person. His comportment may partly explain why, during his more than 25-year career, his creative efforts have repeatedly been considered transgressive. But that term mischaracterizes him as an artist and perhaps even as a man, a point rendered clearly in this newest work, which will have its premiere at the Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, N.J., this week, before traveling around the country and arriving in New York on Feb. 21.
"Blind Date" is his most urgently topical piece in years, and perhaps his most unambiguously political. Its origin was a speech he heard last year in Germany, in which the speaker warned that terms like honor and valor had been cheapened, emptied and recast as purely anachronistic. The speech resonated with Mr. Jones, he said, at a time when he had been trying to understand what patriotism meant in early 21st-century America.
The last presidential election brought his relatively vague ideas about civil malaise into sharp focus. "I'd really thought that the values of the counterculture were moving more into the mainstream of American life," Mr. Jones said one recent afternoon. "But the election really proved to me that I was wrong. I'd begun to have a very strong response to this 'us' and 'them' mentality, and I had become exercised by the kind of discourse we were having in this country."
He responded not with a screed calling for the dismantling of the Bush White House or the secession of the Northeast. Instead, invoking Bach, he set about to create a work of choreography endorsing the values of the Enlightenment, a piece that would cast a critical eye on what he described as a national atmosphere of "toxic certainty." And he has done so with a series of segments that question the expediency of war, reflect on limited opportunities for the urban poor and remark on the centrality of sexual moralism to the Republican agenda.
"Blind Date" does not try to obfuscate its point of view. It makes no pretenses to pure abstraction. This will, no doubt, agitate some observers, just as Mr. Jones's work has done before. But what is truly striking about the piece is that the politics Mr. Jones has in the past fought so fiercely to express sit squarely in the mainstream of American liberalism. "Blind Date" is in many ways the sort of composition that might have sprung from the forces of the Democratic National Committee were they inclined to think in pas de deux and counterpoint. Had Mr. Jones wanted a more literal title, he might have considered "Dancing for Howard Dean."
BY the late-1970's Mr. Jones and Arnie Zane, his partner in life and art, were becoming prominent in the world of postmodern dance. The message of their work was consistently one of racial and sexual tolerance. Almost a decade after Stonewall and some 20 years after the beginning of the civil-rights movement, that may not have been an entirely radical position to occupy, but the pair, an incongruous duo, prompted a great deal of conversation and interest in the world of downtown theater.
"There was a cool, intellectual approach to form along with - if we're going to use McLuhanesque terms - hot content, and that was really different," said Deborah Jowitt, a dance critic at The Village Voice who was an early champion of Mr. Jones's work with Zane. "But they also had another value they expressed early on, and that was a real gusto about making it."
Mr. Jones refuses to classify some of his pieces as more political than others. In his poststructuralist worldview, all art is political. "Swan Lake," he enjoys pointing out, was conceived to delight the aristocracy. "Peasants with heavy breasts is not what 'Swan Lake' was about. Women are ideas in classical ballet, and to my mind, yes, that is political."
Similarly, he does not classify his own political positions, particularly not as a left-of-centrist, maintaining that there is plenty in "Blind Date" with which an archetypal West 74th Street liberal might take issue.
In part of the performance, for instance, a voice is heard reading from Leviticus ("Do not have sexual relations with your father's sister," "Do not have sexual relations with the daughter of your father's wife"), a selection intended, Mr. Jones said, to prompt his secular audiences to ask themselves why it is that they abide by certain biblically derived proscriptions on sexual conduct while maintaining that others have no validity. Here he is involved in an act of self-interrogation as well. "Why do I think it's O.K. to lay with another man," Mr. Jones pondered over the phone one day, "but not to sleep with my sister?"
"I am an African-American man raised on the Bible, but I know that I can't fall back on that sentimental tradition," he said. "I must ask myself, 'What part of this is part of me and what isn't?' "
Material references to religion, to philosophy, to culture high and low, are common for Mr. Jones, who has no interest in confining himself to the traditional parameters of choreography. "That world of Martha Graham, of bodies without words, I just don't think that's what the language of the culture is," he said. At one point "Blind Date" will feature a video of a commercial for a fictitious fast-food enterprise called Quack-a-Dack.
That video accompanies a sequence titled "This Is Richard," in which a reader informs the audience that the young man standing onstage next to him, in a feathered camouflage duck suit, is a 16-year-old boy from Harlem who has been forced by his father to take a job luring customers to a burger restaurant. Eventually an Army recruiter arrives to lure Richard to a different career with more glamorous costuming, at which point all the company's dancers begin moving athletically - jogging, throwing their bodies on the floor - in simulation of military drills. The sequence ends in a pop-influenced duet between Mr. Jones and another dancer; the war charges along, and the party carries on.
Another sequence is "Security." It centers on the movement of a falling body, a gesture that comes out of contact improvisation in dance and more specifically, for Mr. Jones, the "Me Game," a trust-building exercise often used in alternative therapies. As members of the company disperse, running around the stage, they take turns screaming, "Me!," and coalesce to catch and save the falling dancer. Here he evokes the balance of fear, panic and faith maintained as the natural order of things in the post-9/11 world.
He has used versions of the movement before. In 1988, Zane, with whom he had spent 17 years, died from complications of AIDS. All around Mr. Jones, other friends and colleagues were falling. He constructed a series of intensely emotional pieces to explore the themes of loss, mourning and personal resurrection. The best-known of these pieces, "Still/Here," made its debut in 1994, using videotaped conversations he had conducted with people battling terminal illness. The piece sought to promote connection between the well and the unwell - a connection suggesting the Buddhist principle that death is present with all of us always.
Interest in "Still/Here" might have remained largely confined to the dance world had it not been for an essay that Arlene Croce wrote in The New Yorker, "Discussing the Undiscussable." In it she argued that she would not see the piece because it was an attempt to force people to feel sorry for the suffering people featured in it. Such manipulative intent, she determined, put the piece outside the bounds of criticism.
Of the essay's publication and the debate it engendered, Mr. Jones said during a walk in Midtown one recent evening, "It was the worst time of my adult life." That the criticism came from Ms. Croce made it that much more painful. "I thought of her as the Henry James of dance critics," he said. "She wrote in those beautiful, eloquent paragraphs, and I respected her highly. She revealed herself in a way that disappointed me."
During this difficult period he drew on the support of Bjorn Amelan, who had also lost a companion, the fashion designer Patrick Kelly. The two survivors had become lovers not long before, and Mr. Amelan was and remains a set designer for Mr. Jones.
They share a home in Valley Cottage, N.Y., the same home Mr. Jones made with Zane. In his lyrical memoir, "Last Night on Earth," Mr. Jones writes frankly of the sexual abandon he and Zane experienced during the late 70's, in the gay bathhouses of the East Village. But Mr. Jones and Zane chose not to build their domestic life in Lower Manhattan. "As two gay men at that time, living in the East Village would have ripped us apart." Of his decision to embark on a suburban life he added: "I have no patience for people who call it bourgeois. I'm the child of potato pickers. I'm happy to join the middle class." IF "Blind Date" represents a revival of political immediacy in his work, it signals as well a return to a less rigid visual style. "When I started this piece, I'd been thinking about what this company is for," Mr. Jones said. "Five years ago you would have heard me say that it was about beauty. I'd been trying to free the inner formalist in me. I wanted to show that I had range."
Echoing Mr. Jones's words, Janet Wong, who has been his rehearsal director and friend for 10 years, said: "Bill is the son of migrant farmers, and those issues of race and class are always with him, that idea of who is looking at what. He can spend years of making abstract work with pretty dancing, but these issues always come back."
Some observers and critics speculated that his previous shift in style was partly a reaction to Ms. Croce's article. "I wouldn't say that Bill T. Jones is scared of anything," said Lawrence Goldhuber, the 6-foot-tall, 350-pound dancer who worked with Mr. Jones in the late 80's and 90's, but he added, it was hard not to notice that after "Still/Here" Mr. Jones's style was more inclined toward the physical than the emotional.
For the dancers in his company now, many of whom are relatively new, the experience of working on "Blind Date," has been intensely collaborative. Mr. Jones was recovering from knee surgery, and sorting through some existential confusion. "When we started," said Leah Cox, who has been with the company for four years, "his attitude was very much, 'I don't know why I'm dancing. In this political climate, what is the point?' "
"He tends to be someone who can get angry quickly and angry onstage," she added. "I feel as though he's making a very different kind of piece. There's something very thoughtful and considered. He's not finding something out in the end; he's presenting a series of questions."
Mr. Jones acknowledges that he has occasionally felt alienated from his young dancers, and perhaps never as much as when he began talking with them about the piece's underlying ideas. "They're here to dance," he said. "They're not looking for the relationship between Christian fundamentalism and what they're doing in the studio. I'd be bullying, and I'd try to make them take positions and accuse them of being apolitical. I'd ask them: 'Why do you think you have the luxury to be a modern dancer? What are you doing in this company?'
"But you know, they're just people. They have no idea what to do. I think they'd like to be true to something."
In a conversation with the dancers after a rehearsal one evening, Mr. Jones aimed to provoke, telling them that he used to say he couldn't trust a white person who had never slept with a black person. They looked at him in vague disbelief and started to laugh. Mr. Jones chuckled himself. "No, no really," he said. "I used to say that. I did."
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