Talk of the Arts -- Bill T. Jones

By Barbara Melendez


TAMPA, Fla. (April 14, 2010) – Bill T. Jones the choreographer is like the work he creates – multifaceted, complex and interactive. The co-founder and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company believes that when a performance is successful, audiences should be involved in the creation of the artistic experience to form an “instant community.”


Flanked onstage at his recent Talk of the Arts presentation by Michael Foley, a member of the USF dance faculty, and the School of Theatre & Dance Director Marc Powers, Jones was as expressive as one of his productions – conveying as much in words as with his voice, hand gestures and facial movements for a talk titled: Participating in the World of Ideas: The How and Why in Making and Doing.


Jones was on campus rehearsing with students performing in Serenade/The Proposition and praised their work ethic during his far-ranging discussion. A rehearsal that was supposed to end at 10 p.m. kept going to Jones’s surprise, until 10:30 without a complaint from anyone. He was impressed with their commitment and their stamina. (Remaining performances take place in Theatre I at 8 p.m., April 14-17. Tickets range from $8 to $15 and are available at (813) 974-2323 and


Foley and Powers asked the questions fellow artists cared most about, Jones’ growth, process and reactions to his own success.  Audience members added their own questions at the end making for a thoroughly engaging and intimate introduction to the dance star.  An instant community was formed and by the end he presented it with a couple of challenges.


Taking the audience through glimpses of his journey, Jones painted the picture of an episode from childhood when he lay in the grass thinking about his future in ten year increments – 19, 29, 39 and 49.  He couldn’t imagine past that. 


“I understood at nine years that something was going to happen,” he said. “It was already inside of me, a sense that my life was going to be meeting people, being places, doing things that were going to be different than the world I’m in.”


At the current stage of his life, Jones is very aware of his mortality and his legacy– approaching 59, an age he couldn’t conceive of as a child – in the wake of all the people and places that have brought him fame and fortune. Now he is pressured to keep creating new work. He particularly laments not having the time to focus on things like keeping works in repertory to be performed beyond their initial premieres.


“It drives me crazy. You put your guts into something for one or two years. ‘OK, what’s your next work?’ they ask. I want to punch them in the face,” he said laughing. “It’s the nature of the beast. You have to make peace with the tug and pull, the tug and pull that comes from inside yourself and then the tug and pull of the world.”


When asked about the political nature of his work, Jones had a lot to say.


“What you call activism today is what we called freedom,” Jones told his audience. He then took them back to the 60s and 70s and his formative years when he was inspired by the events depicted in the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolf’s quintessential story of the hippie generation – a world of sensibilities he shared. Jones was a 16-year-old member of the enormous crowd at Woodstock and was surprised later on to discover that the world was hostile to his generation’s revolutionary ideas.


“Unfettered access to your innermost thoughts, the freedom to speak what you wanted, those of us who had this idea that that’s what it meant to be free suddenly were told, ‘Oh, you are a left winger.’ Because I want justice for all people or I want to talk freely about sexuality, I want to talk freely about race? I want to be free and then suddenly that’s political activism? I thought it was about art.”


Undaunted, he grew into an artist who wanted to make a difference. “I was really trying to say something,” most importantly, “we are not afraid.”


But as the times changed so did Jones’ outlook – to a degree.


“Some of us who used to be ‘not afraid’ are petrified,” he said, remarking on the shift that took place from freely engaging in contact/improvisation dancing with strangers back in the 1970s and now “pushing against ‘body fear’ – we’re petrified about who we’re actually sweating on or with and why.”


Nonetheless, out of that quest for freedom, Jones has fashioned the kind of career any dancer would envy. He attributed some of his success to his ability to bridge the two worlds of dance that have been kept separate – artistic dance versus entertainment.


One of the first in his family to go to college, Jones attended the State University of New York at Binghamton with his mother’s admonitions ringing in his ears, “She said, ‘Just don’t go to jail, do better than us. You’d better be able to make some money.” He identified with the few Black artists he saw in the entertainment industry but learned about the academic inclination to place “artistic” dance in a separate more rarified category and adopted their stance. Like fellow members of the “artistic” dance world, Jones looked down on those in the commercial dance world.


“’They just want to make money. They want to be famous and they’re not smart enough to know that the action is over here and we’re where the action is.’ I had this attitude inside of a body that’s beginning to think about retirement.”


He looked to the careers of Agnes DeMille, Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp, classical dancers who made the transition to commercial stages. He decided to try it so he could get back “to what really matters” over in the artistic dance world. He was in for a few surprises.


“Because something’s popular doesn’t mean that it is in some way degraded.  It (Broadway) took everything it takes to make something like Serenade – the same commitment to find solutions, the same honesty – ‘Is this beautiful to me?’  It’s incredibly collaborative. There are very, very talented people there and they’re all about craft.” 


Jones wondered if he could make something that would work on Broadway, not knowing the first thing about how. He found it humbling. “Humility is always good,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of humble moments,” he noted with a bit of irony. Forced to look at himself, he said, “You’re hungry. You want something and you’re angry at the dance world. The dance world chews up young people. Broadway brought me face to face with these things.”


In a vivid description of something he and his late partner Arnie Zane used to joke about, Jones brought to life a giant machine that churns out “hungry ambitious young hopefuls” marching into New York City hoping to make the cover of Time Magazine only to be consumed by a big mouth that spits them out to end up looking into “career transitions for dancers.”


When a student asked which direction he should take, stay in school, or leave and just go for it, the young Bill T. Jones would have said, “Just go for it.” But now, Jones sees the value of focused study but says there is room for both.


“I challenge you to put in the time to get the training and still be ‘throwing down’ in the studio. Do double duty so nothing will be shortchanged,” he said and advised the young dance students in the audience to “Get as much mastery and information as you can get. I would go the safe route…Be ready with your skills,” and be open to working anywhere – even Broadway, Jones’ newest frontier.


“Broadway helped me with a reality check,” he said. “Broadway is hungry for change. The good thing about Broadway is that all bets are off, anything is possible, especially if you can get the right team.”


After receiving Tony and Obie Awards for his choreography for the hit musical Spring Awakening and with a hit of his own, Fela! now running on Broadway, it seems Jones has made the transition well.


“I would hope that the students absorbed from Bill T. Jones the kind of passion that it takes to be good at what one does,” commented Foley. “That it is more than just wanting to be an artist: one must immerse oneself in all aspects of one's art through education and practice. Bill said that his success was not necessarily a surprise to him because he had envisioned his own legacy from the time he was a child -- and he stayed focused on the trajectory despite ALL of the things that may have conspired against him.


“He embodies what I believe are the traits of today's great artists (and there are woefully few): intelligent, pro-active, diligent, aware, engaged, energetic and willing to take great risks even if it means challenging the hegemony. In my discussions with students following the Talk, I believe they were very inspired by his words, as well as his deeds.”


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The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.