Bill T. Jones: Stand up stronger
By Alicia Anstead
Over the years, I’ve learned that a conversation with the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones can go just about anywhere. I called him this month to talk about the state of the performing arts field, and he was game for that. As always, the conversation took many turns, from the mundane (his morning exercise routine, tending the garden, books he’s reading – Don Quixote and essays by Hannah Arendt - watching big splashy historical TV show such as Ertugrul) to the profound (just about everything else we discussed). The following represents a condensed and edited version of our conversation, complete with shared frustrations, adaptations and insights about the field. A bit of background: When the nation began to shut down in March due to Covid-19, Jones was busily teching Deep Blue Sea, a work that was to be shown at MASS MoCA in Massachusetts. He was onsite there with 100 people, including the company dancers and leaders from New York Live Arts, where he is artistic director. Because of the virus, they had to pack up and leave suddenly. Eight months later, when we spoke by phone, he told me about another work – Curriculum – that he created in April. It was to be mounted a week later under very strict protocols – physical distancing, masks, greatly reduced live audience members who had to be Covid tested. He was uncertain it would even take place. You’ll see as you read, however, that Jones is no stranger to uncertainty. What surprised me is his commitment to hope.
How are you keeping your mind settled and your heart open these days?
I give myself a 75 when it comes to being in control, and then I dip into a familiar sense of despair that manifests itself in impatience, anger, depression. But I have good people around me, starting with my companion and husband Bjorn Amelan. Previous to this, when we were working on Deep Blue Sea, I was in denial. I came home expecting we’d be home for three weeks, a month? Well, here we are eight months later. That was a Zen slap that made me understand something in the world outside of my artistic ambition. And that turned into a sense of gratitude. I was able to spend six months in my garden. We saw every stage of the seasons. I had never been here through all the phases, from the first green to the leaves turning. So I have a sense of gratitude and the stability of my home.
What happened at New York Live Arts?
My office has behaved exemplary. A lot is riding on New York Live Arts for me. I am trying to prove to myself that as an independent artist, I can be a responsible administrator, a member of a cultural community. Kim Cullen is a first-rate executive director and CEO; she helped us turn around our numbers over the last four years. We were able to keep everyone on salary. That was pretty amazing. We furloughed in July, but we were in a strong position. When I thought we would not do anything with our dancers, Janet Wong, my intrepid artistic co-director, insisted we give them an assignments. These are a lot young dancers who had just come in, so she went back through our repertory, particularly things with Bill dancing, which is not something that happens anymore, and she sent them tapes they had to master in their little remote locations. One dancer, who is the father of a new child, lives in Elmhurst in Queens, a hot spot in April. He would send me his studies of what he had learned, and I would see his little daughter on the side. It was only three rooms. But he had made it into a dance studio. Seeing that sort of dedication also calmed me down and made me understand that everyone has to reinvent right now.
In these times, Bill, it seems to me that for arts organizations, uncertainty and hope are in a standoff.
Very well put. Uncertainty. You know, when I was doing a work a few years ago at the Kennedy Center, someone asked me: What has been an element that has not changed in your work, Mr. Jones? And I said: Doubt. It burns like fire. So I live with doubt. Is doubt the same as uncertainty? Well, they are related. The uncertainty is: When will we be able to do what we do in the same room again? That has been debilitating. And it has taken a lot of faith and hope – and it has taken Kim saying, “This will pass.” And Janet saying: “Let’s not sit and wring our hands about the work we have lost or what we don’t know. Let’s just keep doing right now.” So, let’s show how nimble we are. We’ve seen it in the field – this pivoting, this going digital, which I have, like a lot of people, both cursed and have been thankful for. It is an example of hope. We’re not going to stop our work. We’re not going to stop dancing. But we have to find another way to do it. What do I know having survived the HIV-AIDS plague and now to be in this one, and looking at an uncertain election? There’s something about hope and determination, and grit, that comes into it.
What does that hope mean for you?
I’m a man who is almost 70 years old. Artists like myself say: We don’t retire. We just adapt to a new reality. So nonchalance is now an act of faith, faith that I am going to do this work and that I am going to move forward as if I will be touring again with the company. I’m going to move forward as if these young dancers coming in will be provided with a salary, and we’re still programming New York Live Arts as if we are going to be here. We want to make ourselves even more useful to the community. So that is hopefulness. There is a community. It’s changing, and we want to be participants in it.
I’ve been talking to you or observing your work over the course of 30 years. Each time, I have heard your anger and your hope. And today I hear your hope, and I have to say: It surprises me. I thought I might get you at your most angry today.
Well, stay tuned. [Laughter.] I want to say something reflexive and glib, like I have no choice. I have so much to be grateful for. I have an organization. I have my company. I’m being interviewed by APAP about my take on things. What do you do with that? You have to stand up stronger. At least I have to. Now does that come from parents and their struggles? Maybe. I can tell you, I feel a great privilege and responsibility to have been able to keep our staff on salary. We have a board that is committed. We had really gotten our house in order. I do have my moments, but I am trying to understand what maturity is. Maybe that’s the word, isn’t it? Either way, it takes something like a positive stance. One has to say: I own the place I’m standing, and I’m not afraid of what’s coming. That looks like hope, looks like resolve.
You once said to me that you love this country and when I asked you why, you said dreams can still happen here. How are you feeling about that now?
I come from the lowest classes in the country. We were migrant workers. My dad lost everything. My mother and father, they had all their dreams from 1948 until they lost their house somewhere in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. But I have been able to do this thing called contemporary performance, dance. It wasn’t just an accident. Maya Angelou used to say: You all go on. If you’re Irish, if your Italian, if you’re Black, if you’re Chinese, you have been paid for. Go on. Go for it. I still hold on to that belief.