A Conversation with Bill T. Jones

By Marc Bamuthi Joseph

October 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

IN LATE AUGUST, I had the distinct honor of interviewing Bill T. Jones while he was enjoying a brief respite from his slate of touring, artistic direction and impresario-sized intellectual diversity. Our conversation included forays into Oliver Sacks’ Neurology and the Soul and Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood science fiction series giving us insight into Jones’ capacity to conflate the ineffable with the practical, and through the notion of an ‘alternate social physics’ Jones gives us really compelling history about the environment that he encountered and moved through while making work with Arnie Zane in the late 70’s. Unfortunately the great breadth of our time spent exceeds the column space we have here, but we DID think it prudent to share Mr. Jones’ thoughts on the two works that Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting this Fall as well as a dip into the politics of twerking. The works in question, as you’ll read below are /Time: Study I, which is a site specific piece Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane is making for YBCA at CounterPULSE and the West Coast premiere of A Rite, inspired by the 100th anniversary of the iconic Rite of Spring and developed and performed with Ann Bogart’s Siti Company. The rest of my conversation with Mr. Jones exists as a podcast at ybca.org.

This is an image of Bill T Jones and Anne Bogart
Pictured: Bill T. Jones & Anne Bogart
Photo by: Paul B. Goode

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Can we maybe use John Cage as a pivot point and talk about /Time: Study I and Story/Time?
Bill T. Jones: Please. Yes, Cage is very important to Story/Time. That’s for sure.
MBJ: You know I was initially interested in curating the “Body Against Body” program into your engagement week here.
Jones: Yes. Yes…
MBJ: I was definitely curious about the genesis of your choreographic career with Arnie Zane and the gestural signatures and systems that you were working with in the late 70’s/early 80’s. But more specifically, I was interested in the dynamic of a large company fairly deconstructed, working with just two bodies on stage. What I felt was that it probably made more sense to take an intimate program and put it in an intimate space to recollect the beginning so to speak, which was a principle that I shared with my ally Jessica Robinson Love and I asked if YBCA could put the program on at CounterPULSE. Unfortunately, it was unable to work due to space constraints.
Jones: Aha!
MBJ: Miraculously on behalf of the company (Associate Artistic Director) Janet Wong called me and said, “We’re going to adapt Story/Time and continue on in this Cage-ian inquiry and create something specific for this smaller space.”
Jones: That’s really interesting, yes.
MBJ: I’m just wondering if you could talk about Cage’s “Indeterminacy” and about the process of writing 70 or 80 one-minute stories and working with the rigidity and structure that’s applied to Cage’s chaos and how that might work in a site-specific environment?
Jones: Okay. I think John Cage’s to be one of the major voices of the New York school in the mid-20th century, and how I had, in effect, come of age in the background of that experiment. I talk about the first time seeing him at my university in 1970, wasn’t in the theater it was in a dorm. The presentation was actually in the common room of a dorm. It was curious and free-wheeling, the way both audience and performers were placed around the room, the placement of the various instruments and recording equipment. It made an impression on me and I learned a couple of things; one- that boredom is not a problem. The other one is that, sometimes an idea that is trying for you in the moment, will not let you grow and it changes you over days. John Cage always earned that kind of respect. It was an encouragement and a provocation.
Encouragement was anything could follow any other thing and that we do not have to make all of the decisions. There are other ways that decisions get made and one of those is by chance procedure, or indeterminacy. At this point in the life of this man you’re speaking to, this mid-career artist, I sometimes wonder why do anything new? Why try anything?
MBJ: Right.
Jones: “Does the world really need another work from me?” There’s some example here, some mentorship in Cage saying, “Try indeterminacy. If you’re despairing of doing anything that really has resonance or meaning for you, try not to worry about meaning.” There was something about that simple invitation to relinquish responsibility that is very encouraging, but, from a person that comes from the under class, and realizes that black people’s voices, were for many years suppressed, and I’ve been given this platform…people come to see my work, hear what I have to say. Well, what are you going to say? What is your intention? I struggle with the responsibility of, as my mother would say, ‘stepping out and preaching the word’ as opposed to this relinquishing of responsibility for meaning. Those two concepts, those conflicting imperatives are why I stepped into it with Story/Time about three years ago. Writing those stories, I was in a way critiquing John Cage.
MBJ: Interesting.
Jones: I took it as a directive to tell “my stories,” stories that deal with Jim Crow racism and our ongoing struggle with inequality and bias today, the influence of sexuality, of personal and public tragedy, of spirituality of reporting on the world as I have grown up to understand it, coupled with what I have learned about ideas, about time, about art. [With Story/Time], I’m in a way saying to John Cage, “We are different men, but thank you for the permission!”
MBJ: Wow.
Jones: Is that a problem? Have I really let race, sexuality, class, identity pin me down in in a way that he did not? This is a primary question driving the i experiment. Because I sit in the middle of the stage, Story/Time is dominated by my personality. I became self-conscious and thought, okay, well, why don’t I take my personality out of it, take my stories away, maybe leave a couple of them there but it become almost like text materials rather than an unbroken stream of narrative /Time: Study I is going to adhere strictly to the one minute imperative but I will not be reading the stories. You will see the stage changing and it will have a sense of the system of it but you won’t really understand it in the same way. Our composer, Ted Coffey, has been given the latitude to try a new approach and I have no idea what he’s going to do.
MBJ: Exciting.
Jones: Our company took on a hyper-focus on identity around the time of Still Here and Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had to do with issues of mortality and sexuality and just all those things. Then out of that evolved the idea that the ultimate place was to retreat, if you will, to form. Around that time (the mid 2000’s), maybe I was even saying it’s a skill. The only thing that lasts is form.
MBJ: Interesting.
Jones: I don’t know if it’s really true, but it’s been true enough. How we dance is probably now more important than who is on stage dancing.
However, there is another thing now and that’s mass culture. People already approach it with permission.
MBJ: Yes.
Jones: Now this is a problem. People have their blinders on. They go looking for their hit. They go for their favorite song or their favorite booty shake or the money shot. To come back to Cage, the art that Merce and John were talking about, was constantly surprising the public or pushing them away just when they should be pulled. Mass culture already is saying, “You know what this is. Come on in here.”
MBJ: I want to connect this kind of mass cultural pathway that you’re talking about to your collaboration with Anne Bogart, vis-à-vis audience and permission. Last night a young artist named Miley Cyrus was on MTV’S Music Video Awards.
Jones: Yeah, I’ve heard and read a bit about her. She’s “twerking,” right?
MBJ: Yes…twerking in air quotes. The internet uproar, for me, echoes the Champs-Élysées moment of The Rite of Spring in the sense that here’s this young white woman performing to the best of her limited experience, what she may perceive to be “Africanity.”
Jones: Oh, boy.
MBJ: …And folks throw an Internet riot at the sight of a white woman trying on the physical lexicon of “black” culture. I have two questions about collaboration, but first, I’m just wondering if I could get your thoughts on that dynamic, on the Africanization of European movement and/or European idols, whether it’s The Rite of Spring, whether it’s ballet as icon, or just a Disney ordained apocryphal white woman as icon…
Jones: Well, it’s difficult, that formulation, “apocryphal white woman,” because I don’t like it when I am labeled an “apocryphal black man.” I would say white people think they can be neutral whereas the rest of us have accepted that we cannot be neutral.
MBJ: Mm.
Jones: If you watch American Idol, it seems like everybody tries to throw down like Aretha Franklin.
MBJ: Mm-hmm.
Jones: There was a time when that particular sound was Aretha Franklin or the church. Now, we’re all listening to the same thing.

This is an image of dancers performing "A Rite."
Pictured: Bill T. Jones, A Rite
Photo by: Paul B. Goode

You’ve heard me say I was loathe to do a Rite of Spring. It seems like it’s a trap that every choreographer falls into. They have to measure up and do a Rite of Spring. I didn’t want to until I started working with
Anne, who, coming from theater, has not been inundated or marinated in the history of that piece. So I thought, okay, what the hell (laughing) but I’m not interested in trying to emulate Nijinsky… I said, let’s talk about the work (Rite) as a thing, as a trope, and something that had been a lodestar. It’s been a provocation for generations of makers. Anne got on board with that idea but we decided to keep certain iconographic moments like the dance of the maiden. We don’t have a sacrificial maiden, per se, but we have a stage full of people who all are trying to dance themselves to death in a certain place. The piece has some rumination on sacrifice, but not be one rooted in “primitivism.” So I think that we decided to take a posture of looking at The Rite of Spring as a thing, as an event, and not really as what it was. We’re not trying to shock anybody.
MBJ: Right.
Jones: I find it very difficult to shock people or to be shocked these days. I don’t know how you feel.
MBJ: Yeah. Well, it moves me to the second question, which is about collaboration.
Jones: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
MBJ: It also seems to me that you’re a voracious collaborator.
Jones: (Laughs). Yes, it’s because I’m an ambitious son of a bitch, and I realized early on that I can’t do everything. I choose to go to people who know more than I do and to invite them into this game of push and pull – the collaborative process.
MBJ: So then, what was it about Anne Bogart, and what would you say that you learned in this collaboration that might be different from collaborations in past works?
Jones: Well, first of all, Anne comes with this full arsenal of strategies and questions. I mean, this is the person who took Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe and transposed the text into the
language of quantum physics, keeping the temperature and the motivation between characters, while they’re all speaking in esoteric formulas and theory. Now, that is fascinating to me. I mean, difficult to watch, but it is fascinating. Art-making to me is participation in the world of ideas. I like her ideas.
She pays my art form a great compliment because she feels the world of actors – as opposed to the dancer’s world – doesn’t have what she calls “practice.” Dancers take class everyday. Actors don’t. SITI Company does, in fact, have a practice, which is their Viewpoints and Suzuki Training and this is their key method. I was interested in their group, which is almost like a dance company, but much more rooted in something intellectual and text-based. The cultures of my company and hers do not share an obvious affinity. So, a concept that pulls us together in response to 20th century masterpieces such as The Rite of Spring was perverse and odd enough to inspire me.
MBJ: Right.
Jones: Our piece, A Rite, was – for lack of a better term – a spiritual activity, pure inquiry, if you will. In the end, the piece had three directors, Anne, Janet Wong and myself and both actors and dancers were invited to weigh in as well. At times, I felt that the process too open, too “let’s see,” “let’s experiment,” and I knew that there was a deadline looming. So I would come in, and I would play bad cop and actually edit things and critique, which was sometimes met with a degree of controversy and, at other times, welcomed. In short, there were a number of expectations and assumptions that were not really talked about initially. We just started working with great deference for each other and excitement at the notion of creating a response to this “Mount Fuji” of 20th century art. With time, we hit the choppy waters in which those unexplored expectations and assumptions had to be dealt with. I’m learning now that in working with a collaborator who comes from so different a tradition one should be upfront, really clear about what one expects. A Rite was a learning experience. All said and done, it came out quite interestingly. Like none of us could have expected it to – a healthy sign in a work of art.
MBJ: Brilliant. Again, I can’t thank you enough for taking some time out. This discussion has been so rich getting to know your work even a little bit better. It has been so meaningful. Thank you, man.
Jones: I look forward to having more conversation with you, okay?
MBJ: They will come. They will come. Thank you again and again, brother.

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of In Dance.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is the 2011 Alpert Award winner in Theater and an inaugural recipient of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. This summer, his evening length work red black and GREEN:a blues was nominated for a 2013 Bessie Award for “Outstanding Production (of a work stretching the boundaries of a traditional form).” Bamuthi’s next piece in this artistic vein is called /peh-LO-tah/, and is a Balinese style shadow play that examines global economies and sexual identities through the lens of soccer’s World Cup. Mr. Joseph is currently completing new works for the Philadelphia Opera and South Coast Repertory Theater while serving as Director of Performing Arts at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.