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Bill T. Jones Starts a New 'Chapter'
by Andrew Davis
2008-03-26

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It speaks to Bill T. Jones' iconic status that he is revered by so many different groups of people—including dance enthusiasts, the African-American community and the LGBT demographic. Part of the reason he is idolized is because his works with the New York City-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company ( co-founded in 1982 with his late life and business partner ) still push the boundaries of modern dance. The other facet involves Jones' own seemingly regal bearing, composed of curiosity, intellectual authority and his courage to come forward as a Black, gay, HIV-positive individual.

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Pictured: Bill T. Jones. Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons. Bill T. Jones' Chapel/Chapter. Photo by Paul B. Goode

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On Wed-Sat., April 9-12, Jones will present his newest work, Chapel/Chapter ( which covers three dramatic stories involving violence and murder ) , at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. Jones talked with Windy City Times about Zane, the evolution of dance and the Tony Award he won last year for choreographing Spring Awakening.

Windy City Times: Could you talk about what Arnie [ Zane ] was really like?

Bill T. Jones: I met him when I was 19 and he was about 20 or 21. To say he was dynamic would be an understatement. He was motivated, and had strong opinions and passions. He was very organized, and was husband and wife to me.

He was a bit of a Napoleon; he had this vision of taking over the world. He wanted a life in the suburbs at a time when all of our cool friends were living in the East Village, which was a very wise thing on his part.

He came from an Italian-American father and a Jewish mother who met each other in the Bronx in the '40s; they loved each other madly. His mother was from a family of rabbis, so there was a very strong Jewish identity, but it was somehow mediated by his father. The father converted to Judaism and changed his last name to Zane because [ the former surname ] sounded too Gentile—I think that's the way the story goes. Arnie had an elastic identity. There was a point literally when he was going through a spiritual phase, and he was wearing a Star of David and a Christian cross at the same time.

I loved him madly—I really, really loved him—and some of the most important things I discovered I did with him by my side. Taste in decor, taste in art, taste in food—all of those things were developed with him.

WCT: Let's talk about your personality. You've always stood out to me as being proud. Has this [ strength in character ] always been a part of you or did you have some sort of epiphany one day?

BTJ: I think 'proud' is one way to put it. By temperament, I think I'm an introspective extrovert. Coming from a very large family—12 kids—one had to really struggle for identity, and I understood that one way to [ achieve ] that was through language. Also, I had the good fortune—unlike my oldest siblings—to be raised in the North instead of the South, so I was allowed to learn how to speak, and I was expected to express myself. Like I said in [ Jones' memoir ] Last Night on Earth, one was expected to speak a certain way at the predominantly white schools we attended, but when we came home we were expected to not put on airs.

So, as a young child, you had to know what was a usable personality for the outside world and what was an authentic personality. Having to reconcile those two problems all my life had me constantly alert. By the time I started making art as a young man at 19, I was quite belligerent—and maybe that's what you mean by 'proud.' I've always been interested in ideas, I question everything and I do believe that there is an essential self—and an essential self has to be defended, and sometimes that does feel like a 'fist in the air' position, less so now that I'm in my middle years. This is another way of saying that the person inside was and is very vulnerable—a person with a deep sense of insecurity but a great capacity for love and, I daresay, forgiveness.

WCT: When I talked with choreographer Joel Hall a couple years ago, he commented that 'there's a discrepancy between Blacks and white in terms of opportunities and jobs [ in dance ] .' How do you feel about that statement?

BTJ: Let's put it this way: You may be correct, but a young Black male [ who is ] halfway well-trained and disciplined can write [ his ] own ticket. The dance world is hungry for males, first of all, but also young Black ones; they are much in demand.

Having said that, I know that there are all sorts of prejudice against our intellectual capabilities. It's one thing to be a young stud on stage, dancing and sweating in somebody else's work. It's something else altogether to get the world to take your ideas—your intellectual engagement—seriously. That's the biggest gap I've found there.

You have to realize that, in general, dance is not a valued commodity in the culture, no matter what they say about [ the TV shows ] Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance? Anyone who goes into the dance world is going to realize that it's going to be a very difficult career, there will be few rewards and one has to fight to make a middle-class living, never mind establish a highly individualistic and idiosyncratic way of creating art.

WCT: It's interesting you mentioned Dancing with the Stars because, for some people, that's their idea of what dancing is.

BTJ: Well, having never seen the show—I've only read about it and shuddered—I think that it's unfortunate. For me, dance came in the footsteps of people who were rebelling against the classical modern dance that was defined somewhere between the 1930s and 1960s. There was a generation of avant-garde artists—primarily white, middle-class young people—that began to question [ established ] notions of what dance was. They were anti-technique, anti-glamour and [ against ] the position that early modern dance took.

My generation came after that generation of modern dance. We were more open to things like technique, theatrical presentation and glamour—and we were very conscious of trying to make careers. And the generation that came after me, race and gender aside, was better educated than my generation was. They were people who actually had gone to many dance departments around the country, coming out with degrees, expecting that they were going to—well, I don't know what they expect to do. Quite frankly, I'm often disappointed. I don't think [ schools ] prepare students for real life. What does it mean to have a bachelor's in performance? Can you find a job?

WCT: You also mentioned questioning ideas. What concepts do you question now—either through your works or just in general?

BTJ: I question my own identity as an artist—what does that mean? I'm a child of people who were basically field workers, and who taught that the American Dream was an almost Ebony magazine notion of what a Black person should be—you should do better than [ the preceding generation ] had done.

No, I didn't want to work with my hands, per se, but I did feel like to had to pay my way. I chose to do it with models like James Baldwin—the idea of entering into an arena of creativity and intellectual elite [ individuals ] , but I wanted to do it through modern dance.

The ideas I question [ involve ] who consumes the work I make. Am I in the same continuum of the entertainment industry as something like Dancing with the Stars or Hollywood movies? One has to reconcile that if one expects people to spend their discretionary cash on entertainment. What are we offering them in return? What makes the work we do different from popular art or the 'high art' you would see in the opera houses? Are we extending some dialogue about democracy? Are we extending some inspiration about formal beauty and what is worth doing on stage? That's a big one for me.

Also, what is worth doing in terms of a lifestyle? Keeping a dance company is very, very difficult in a world where you have to fight every year to justify yourself. Is it worth doing? I have to answer that question through doing.

And the piece coming to Chicago is something I'm very proud of because I think, in that work, many of those questions are answered—at least, for the time being. It's a work that has a rigorous formal structure; it's uncompromising on that level—you have to be really alert to read what's going on. It's a work that demands a great deal of skill in the execution of the dances, skill in the way the movement is created, skill in the actual beauty of the space and skill in manipulating very tough content. So I feel validated in it; it's the type of art I would actually like to watch—and, yet, it's quite humanist in its heart. [ The work ] has the potential to perhaps—and I use this word advisedly—teach people something. If nothing else, it should teach them how to look at their complacency.

WCT: The reviews of Chapel/Chapter call the work 'riveting,' 'disturbing,' and 'compassionate,' to name a few terms. When you hear those words, do you feel like you've accomplished what you set out to do?

BTJ: My demons are abated, temporarily—and the demons come with the questions that come constantly. The work almost, by accident, hit a home run, maybe. It was supposed to have been [ a work ] for an uptown Harlem-based organization I've been associated with for some years now. They gave us space to rehearse; I was obliged to give a performance.

I had been trying to put my roots in the Harlem community, and get my downtown audience to come uptown. So I thought to do something easy but something designed for a brand-new space called The Gatehouse, a renovated water-pumping station from [ the late 19th century ] . The 'Chapel' comes from the [ venue ] almost appearing like a sacred space; the 'Chapter' part comes from me thinking about stories. I'm always thinking in terms of stories and anecdotes, and I was reading a newspaper and you read some of these horrible crimes. I wanted to find three or four stories that were archetypal.

So when I read people saying positive things about it, I think that this is pointed in the direction that my company should develop towards: acting; text; interesting, constantly evolving notion of movement, which is my legacy from the post-modern dance world; and a type of forum or clearinghouse where ideas can be exchanged.

WCT: I've never spoken with a Tony Award winner, so I have to congratulate you.

BTJ: Thank you. I'm still trying to understand what that means. Someone asked me what [ the win ] means, and I said, 'For a person in their middle age, it means that life is still capable of delivering surprises.'

I didn't anticipate winning that way. I didn't think I'd be rewarded for being a newcomer and for making such an atypical contribution to the season.

WCT: Is there anything you would like to add?

BTJ: I think that gay people should understand that modern dance is something that should be supported and taken seriously, as gay men and gay women have been major architects of this most American art form. It's a place in which the ideas that are dear to us, as gay people, are lived daily—ideas about power, the body, the connection between fashion and art, individuality, community building. All of those things are in modern dance, and I would encourage [ the gay community ] to support modern dance in their community.

Tickets for the April 9 Chapel/Chapter gala are $300-$500. For more information or to purchase tickets to the gala, e-mail rsvp@mcachicago.org or call 312-397-3868. For tickets to the April 10-12 performances ( with tickets costing $28-$40 ) , call 312-397-4010 or visit www.mcachicago.org .


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