Learning One's Body: A Talk with Choreographer Bill T. Jones (Washington, DC)

By Don Ball


Choreographer Bill T. Jones at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. Photo by Russell Jenkins

Bill T. Jones is one of the foremost choreographers in the world, having created a wide variety of multimedia dance works that explore challenging philosophical and social issues such as race, identity, and terminal illness. In 1980, 1981, and 1982, Jones received NEA Choreographers Fellowships. His company, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, continues to receive funding for its highly creative work. Below is the edited telephone interview with Bill T. Jones.

NEA:  Can you tell me how you began in the dance field? 

Bill T. Jones:  I was 19 years old and at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I was there to run track with the idea of going into commercial theater, as I had done some theater in high school.  It was there that I was then enticed by a young relative, who was also going to the university, to not go to those track practices but instead come to these really great dance classes, taught by Percival Borde.  He was a beautiful performer.  I went and I was totally enthralled by the multicultural aspect of the room, by the “smell of the sweat” when I opened the door, by the drummers.  It was a very heady time, early ’71.  I just graduated from high school in ’70. 

So I was hooked, and shortly after that time, Arnie Zane, my new partner, and I went away to Amsterdam, and I got a greater sense of what it meant to be a professional dancer by taking classes there and seeing more things there.  I came back with the idea of really making a serious attempt at this.  That’s how it happened.  And then the rest of it, I think it had to do with learning one’s body and learning one’s tastes, learning about one’s sexuality, all those things fell into being a dancer.  I didn’t think at all about making a living or anything like that.

NEA:  What did it mean to receive the NEA Choreographers Fellowships in the early 1980s?

Bill T. Jones:  There was a sense of suddenly being a part of the club—that literally, at the federal level, someone thought what we do was important enough to be funded.  And on a psychological, emotional level, that was certainly a lift, and one begins to walk a bit more straight and upright and to think more seriously as an artist…. So that was what I think it meant.  It also meant that we could begin to plan.  We could begin to look for and attract administration [staff], which was rudimentary.  We made lots of mistakes: we didn’t really know how to get a board of directors.  We didn’t know how to get the next piece made.  We were just going to do it on sweat and enthusiasm.  But the NEA imprimatur was definitely important to us.  And the perception in the funding world that you were somebody that should be funded was very important.

NEA:  Since the elimination of the Choreographers Fellowships, the NEA has continued to support your dance company through our organizational grants.  How important are those grants to you?

Bill T. Jones:  Literally it was helping us understand how to grow up as professional artists, that you did not always have to be in crisis mode, and you didn’t have to start making something and then figure out how to pay for it.  It took us many years to get over that habit. Knowing that the NEA money would be there for us as an organization did many things that helped us grow our infrastructure and, more importantly, just evolve our thinking [about] what we were doing…. It was good to know that we had allies at the NEA, and people were actually thinking about what it means to have a healthy, creative culture in our country. 

NEA:  What is your process for creating a new work?

Bill T. Jones:  Each work is its own problem, and that’s another way of saying one must find different ways into the work, and different ways to actually do what I call “negotiate the distance from the inner world.”  That is a process of finding language; finding resources; bringing up to speed all those collaborators and, most importantly, the dancers; and finding producers of the work, people who are going to actually help you get it up on its feet and promote it and show it. All those things don’t happen at once.  But I think the first one, probably, is identifying in myself what wants to be attempted, what is the question in this particular work. 

I’ll give you an example of probably one of the riskiest works that we’ve made, and that is A Quarreling Pair. I became besotted with the short stories of Jane Bowles, the author of [the puppet play] “A Quarreling Pair.”  I did a lot of workshops with my then-company and put the work aside, not knowing what to do with it. Many years later, presenters come to me after I’ve just been laboring over something like Blind Date, and they’ll say, “Yes, but what’s your next thing?”  So I go into the larder, or, you know, the place where ideas are sitting there, and I’d say—as much to keep face as to keep a conversation going with the hungry presenters—“Okay, I’m going to do something called A Quarreling Pair.”  And now I’m committed. 

[I discover] where the world of A Quarreling Pair will be set—it’s going to be a decidedly theatrical work.  And then there’s an opportunity to develop the company, and that’s always, for me, one of the engines driving every new work—how is it going to develop my young dancers?  Are they actors, are they clowns, are they singers?  And I begin to look at them in a new way when I’m making a new work, because that will inform literally how the work is made.  And that’s how A Quarreling Pair ended up being set in a vaudeville show.  That’s why there’s so many silly things going on around what is basically not a silly story.  Returning to my roots as a postmodern, abstract choreographer who believes that dance language is independent of all other media, its own language—how can I take that belief and place it in a hyper-theatricalized environment and come up with something that has an emotional impact?  So that’s how that particular piece began.

NEA:  You work a lot with words or language with your pieces. 

Bill T. Jones:  I have been known, since my earliest solo in 1977 when I was first written about by Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times, as a young humanist who talks on stage.  And I have been doing storytelling and abstract gestures and various deconstructed or highly organized text materials since my earliest days.  So it’s always been of interest to me.  People say that if they were to find a comparison for my aesthetics in terms of the elements of language and visual projections and so on, they say it reminds them of [Robert] Rauschenberg’s “Combines.”  Now Fondly Do We Hope/Fervently Do We Pray… is a work about Abraham Lincoln. And the Abraham Lincoln that we know is represented most unfailingly through his wonderful prose, so we’ve had to find a way that we can truly dance to the great man’s words because this, to me, is a work about ideas, not just poetic imagery. 

NEA:  What would you suggest to new choreographers or dancers entering the field?

Bill T. Jones:  When they tell me they’re about to start a company, I always take a deep breath, and with as much compassion as possible, say, “Oh, you must be a very brave and organized person.”  And that’s intended not as a put down. I tell them they have to be very organized, and they have to be a salesman.  They have to be extremely resourceful of how they’re going to literally pay their dancers, how they’re going to find space rental.  Never mind if they’re ambitious enough to have a touring company—will they be able to find an administrator and pay them the scale that a person of quality would get if they were in the profit world.  And I know all those words means very little now since the economic meltdown, but it certainly made a big difference to us when we were starting.