Bill T Jones is a mover and a shaker: he wants to dance, and he wants to stir things up. As a black, gay, HIV-positive man, he is far more than a survivor. He thrives on the questions his position raises.
The 10th of 12 children, Bill T (William Tass) Jones was born in Florida in 1952, the son of itinerant farm workers, and raised in New York State. He discovered dance at the State University of New York at Binghampton. There, in 1971, he met Arnie Zane, a photography graduate he’d initially been too shy to talk to, but who became his lover and artistic collaborator for the next 17 years.
Following Jones’s example, Zane began dancing, too, and in 1972, together with Binghampton graduates Lois Welk and Jill Becker, they founded the American Dance Asylum, an experimental artistic collective under whose aegis they made their first forays into choreography, influenced variously by ideas from civil rights, identity politics, counterculture movements and avant gardism. They quickly attracted attention for their idiosyncratic and sometimes confrontational work, and for being a highly distinctive couple, both personally and physically: Jones was tall, black and powerfully built, while Zane was small, lithe and Italian-Jewish.
In 1982, after touring internationally as a duo, they founded the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which soon became a leading player in the modern dance scene, scoring a number of high-profile successes, notably Secret Pastures (1984). They also began to receive commissions (notably from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater). But the wave they rode broke: Zane died of an Aids-related illness in 1985 and Jones, who had also been diagnosed HIV positive, did not expect to live long.
But he continued to work, and continues to do so today. Following Zane’s death he produced some large-scale theatrical pieces that directly addressed themes of loss and life, provoking both acclaim and controversy. In the last two decades, Jones has also expanded his reach: from 1994 to 1997 he was resident choreographer at the Lyon Opera Ballet, and he has worked as a choreographer for opera and theatre as well as for his own company. More recently he has worked on musicals, winning Tony awards for Spring Awakening (2007) and Fela! (2009).
A charismatic speaker and performer, Jones is still here, working and creating. His company still bears Zane’s name in his honour. Jones lives in the house he shared with Zane, now with another personal and professional partner of 17 years, theatre designer Bjorn Amelan.
Watching Bill T Jones
Watch the early Jones/Zane duets: you see one dance with two people who differ ethnically, physically and temperamentally. The subject is often confessional or political, while the composition is often quite formal. You have the key ingredients for Jones’s subsequent very wide-ranging choreography: human diversity, personal revelation and social comment combined with artistic values.
Stylistically, Jones draws on a range of techniques, including African dance, American modern and postmodern dance, and ballet, but an important formative influence was contact improvisation, a form of partner-work that enables people of different heights, weights and strengths to interact – a kind of physical manifestation of diversity in action, and interaction.
The Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane dance company has always been multiracial, and that is integral to its identity. It’s also been open to a range of body types, from Lawrence Goldhuber – a huge bear of a man – to the petite Heidi Latsky (the two went on to perform together, inspired by the “mismatched duet team” of Jones and Zane). In keeping with the theme of diversity, Jones’s choreography is often multimedia – he’ll use speech, text, song or film alongside movement.
Critic Deborah Jowitt once described Jones and Zane’s work as cool form with hot content, for while the couple (particularly Zane) sometimes focused on composition, they also (particularly Jones) had a reputation for tackling challenging topics. Race is a recurrent theme, as is sexuality; ultimately, so is America itself (the subject of Jones’s latest company work. His most controversial piece was Still/Here (1994), about, and in part performed by, people with terminal illnesses; New Yorker critic Arlene Croce wrote about why she refused to see it, provoking a critical hoo-ha that rumbles on to this day.
Although Zane died in 25 years ago, his presence in the company remains. Janet Wong, a former dancer with the company and long-standing friend of Jones’s, is associate artistic director. Amelan is the company’s regular scenic designer.
For many years, Jones wore his hair in dreadlocks. When he finally cut them off he gave each one a name and sent them to a tapestry artist to weave.
In their own words
“My survival instinct and my racial history are inseparable. I inherited from my people a sense of the world being a place of adversity, a valley of sorrow, but that redemption is possible.” – Interview with Larry Kaplan, POZ magazine, 1994
“No, I am not a polemicist. If anything I’m a poet … I don’t want to fight. And now I’m criticized for not fighting more because people need a poster boy. They need a Muhammad Ali.” – Interview with Fletcher Roberts, New York Times 2006
“Everything is political to me. But that can’t be all that it is.” – Interview with Sarah Wildman, Guardian 2008
In other words
“Bill T Jones is a contradiction, and you get the feeling he likes it like that.” – Elizabeth Kaye, New York Times 1994
“All this time, people have been complaining about Bill T Jones, or praising him, for being political. It turns out he was instead being moral, even religious.” – John Rockwell on Chapel/Chapter, New York Times 2006
“Bill T Jones has always liked to talk to his audience … Even when he doesn’t open his mouth, his shows still speak loudly of the politics and passions of their subject matter, whether they be sex, race, art or death.” – Judith Mackrell, quoted by John O’Mahony, Guardian 2004
“The political is personal.”
The phrase that provoked most outrage in Croce’s notorious 1994 New Yorker essay on Still/Here, Discussing the Undiscussable (dubbed by some as “Cussing the Undissable”).
Like Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company, DV8 Physical Theatre tackes socially engaged themes with an eclectic approach to media, body types and dance styles.
Twyla Tharp is another American choreographer who has moved between avant-garde experimental works and Broadway musicals.
Now watch this
Archive clips and recreations of some early works by Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin/To the Promised Land (1990)
Excerpt from The Breathing Show (1999)
Scenes from and interviews about Fela! (2009)
Another Evening/I Bow Down (2010)
Where to see Bill T Jones next
See the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company website for performance dates.