Divine dissatisfaction

"Dance is not a frivolous thing for little girls in tutus," says superstar choreographer Bill T. Jones. "This is adults with something to teach and something to share."

It seems there is not enough time to take in all of the interesting ideas percolating in the mind of choreographer Bill T. Jones. No matter which vehicle he chooses to express with: his body, his blog, his company of dancers or his own voice, Jones has something to say. Each of his works, whether for Broadway or his company of 10 dancers, opens a window into his inner thoughts.
Each day, Jones wakes up, says good morning to his partner and artistic collaborator, Bjorn G. Amelan, and checks his e-mail. “If we are jet-lagged, which we often are, we read to each other,” says Jones. “Right now, we are reading an 18th-century Chinese tome.”
In the evening, Jones relishes preparing dinner with Amelan, going over the events of the day and “some intimacies of being still with each other.” It is the life between these romantic parentheses that has captured attention worldwide.
Since its inception in 1983, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company has performed in more than 200 cities.
Its next tour will include five performances here: two in Tel Aviv, two in Jerusalem as part of the Israel Festival and one in Haifa. During its time here, the company will present two works, Serenade/The Proposition and Between Us. The two evenings are extremely different. Serenade/The Proposition is based on the life of Abraham Lincoln, while Between Us is a collection of duets by Jones and Zane.
Over the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands have filled theaters, participated in master classes and attended lectures to hear what is on Jones’s mind. And yet, finding the right audience is still as enigmatic to him as it is to many of his peers in the modern dance community.
Jones admits that he does not know exactly who the people are that buy tickets to his shows. He does know, however, who he would like them to be. “I want my audience to be as diverse as my life is, as diverse as the people in my own life are. I have people in my family who are highly educated and people who have been in prison and have drug problems. My friends are well-known, respected artists and individuals and some are humble people. So I would hope that my audience encompasses the list I have just mentioned,” he says.
The source of this challenge results from the fact that, in his eyes, dance has yet to prove itself as a vital element of American cultural life. When asked how he thought this feat could be achieved, Jones replied, “We’ve got to find a loyal audience. That’s what people respect, the numbers. The audiences go to wherever they think the meaning is in the culture. Be it celebrity, power or money. We artists have to argue for something else. I think it has to do with community building. I wouldn’t say moral instruction. Maybe it’s the kind of moral instruction that good art can bring. To show people that dance is not a frivolous thing for little girls in tutus. This is adults with something to teach and something to share.”
But regardless of who fills the seats, Jones is making art for “us.” When he says “us” he is referring to human beings. “I don’t know if art is made for bees and birds. We make art for us so that we might understand our place in this world. The question is who is ‘us.’ I’m a black American and a lot of my experience has been shaped by that, but I am also a citizen of the world. When I come to Israel, I hope that the work has something that someone who has never been to America can find some thread to connect to,” he said.
JONES BEGAN his long tryst with dance as a child. Born the 10th of 12 children to migrant-worker parents, Jones and his siblings entertained themselves by dancing. “I was in a high school production of The Music Man in upstate New York, where I grew up. Our teacher promised we would get a choreographer; no one even knew what that was at the time. She told me to make up the dances until he arrived. Of course, no one ever came. Then it was opening night and I did my number, which was a combination of things I had seen on television: Jerome Robbins and such. And my whole town rose to its feet and gave me a standing ovation in the middle of the show. I didn’t know what this was. I was 16 years old in Wayland, New York,” he reminisces.
Shortly after, Jones met Arnie Zane, who would be his partner until his death in 1988. The Italian-Jewish dancer and Jones quickly became known for their bold partnering and are credited with having redefined the duet. Several segments of Between Us are products of Zane’s and Jones’s time together on stage. The couple’s personal trials and tribulations, which included being openly gay and HIV positive, were ever present in their work and won them certain notoriety in the American artistic community. Since Zane’s death, Jones has continued to explore the dance medium. To date, he has created more than 100 pieces.
“Each work is a rather sobering concentration with oneself. With one’s questions of doubt and one’s feelings of inadequacy. One is confronting one’s taste and what one has done,” says Jones.
Accessibility, a rare quality in modern dance pieces, is never far from his mind when creating. “Serenade/The Proposition was the result of a big commission for a popular classical music venue in Chicago,” Jones says. “Yes, I was thinking about how to make it handsome enough, expansive enough. I used multimedia to help people who aren’t used to reading history books. They like spectacle; I have to find a way to play to that. Between Us is a series of duets that come from the 1980s. Those works were made for people who had a formal interest in the medium. They were made for small audiences. I work from two points of view and my career reflects that.”
Alongside his work with the company, Jones is a winner of countless awards, including a Tony for his choreography for the hit Broadway musical Spring Awakening. His new musical, Fela!, based on the life of prolific Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti, has recently been nominated for 11 Tony awards.
“Broadway offers another point of view, one that is grounded in the hard facts of capitalism. Everything that a working artist makes has to pay for itself. That fact takes me out of the clouds. It’s nice to live in the clouds, but eventually you have to come back to earth, where the work gets done. Time equals money. Broadway makes that very clear. You have to dream on a schedule. The artist’s dreaming process has to take the time it takes. But Broadway doesn’t work like that. One has to be very efficient and clear and concise. That’s a good quality,” he explains.
And while Jones has been embraced warmly by the musical theater world, he hangs his hat in the dance studio. “The modern dance world has its own roots and reality. There is no money, so you have to make a lot with very little,” he says.
With so much work under his belt, Jones still does not feel satisfied. “I am often times ecstatically happy,” he says. “I’m very in love and there are great things happening. After I had finished making Fela! and was feeling very depleted, someone gave me a plaque with Martha Graham’s philosophy engraved on it. It made me feel better. It reads, ‘No artist is ever pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.’”