Culture Jones

Dance legend Bill T. Jones transforms media into movement
Courtesy of Walker Art Center

Toss out the word "hipster" for some quick association and many people will reply with "Allen Ginsberg" or "Jack Kerouac." The rare clever person, however, will say "Lord Buckley." Born Richard Merle Buckley, the comic-turned-"Hip Messiah" was famous during the 1950s for channeling the words of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Marquis de Sade into cool riffs. He even updated Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, slyly reporting "that all Cats and Kitties, red white or blue, are created level in front." Bob Dylan, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams all cite him as an influence.

Buckley, who died in 1960, is best known for a hepcat ode to Jesus called "The Nazz," a recording of which introduced choreographer Bill T. Jones to Buckley's spectacular wordplay. "I heard this strange voice, a bit like Louis Armstrong, talking about this most groovy dude who ever lived--the Nazz," explains Jones by telephone. "I listened to it five times before I realized he was telling the story of the Nazarene. He was taking an iconographic story and treating it in a highly personal and secular way. I aspire to that myself in order to express deep feelings." Thus the inspiration for a movement response to be performed this weekend by Jones and two of his company members, Malcolm Low and Donald C. Shorter Jr., at the Walker Art Center. "It's just a beginning," cautions Jones, envisioning a longer work. "It picks up on the character of Lord Buckley's storytelling. He was improvising but also very much in control of his material."

The same could be said for Jones, who at age 53 has enjoyed an extraordinary career in dance, creating works built on elements of modern, ballet, and improvisation. A co-founder of the internationally acclaimed Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (Zane, Jones's long-time life and creative partner, passed away in 1988 after battling AIDS-related complications), Jones has accumulated numerous grants and awards, and some controversy. Critic Arlene Croce infamously declared the HIV-positive choreographer's 1994 work Still/Here, a meditation on illness and survival, to be "victim art" without actually seeing it, sparking a national discussion on the relationship between personal identity and art. Throughout this and other experiences, Jones has proven himself an incisive commentator on the intersection of artistic, social, and political dynamics but he also always finds ways to make intimate connections in order to elevate mere rhetoric into transformative expression.

The past and memory also play a large role in Jones's present. This weekend's performance includes "Chaconne," now in its third incarnation and featuring a live violinist, Helen Chang, playing the demanding Bach score. "I was feeling the loss of my mother and the loss of Arnie Zane and I was trying to understand how one can connect over the years to people that you lose," says Jones. The music delivers another layer of tension and complexity. "There are so many notes spinning out of the violin. It defeats any attempt to modulate as [Bach] does," he continues. Throughout, Jones partners himself with video created using the motion-capture technology pioneered by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar.

Rounding out the evening is "22," a fresh take on Jones's 1983 talking solo "21." Accompanied live by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the performance consists of 22 gestures set to the recitation of a frightening folktale told to Jones by his grandmother, and observations of a photographer in Rwanda. The two stories raise several questions for Jones about the power of social contracts and the value of life. The photographer, says Jones, "is an artist whose job is to look at the times. I feel repulsed now by much of what is going on in the world, but I [too] can only look. I don't have any answers. I'm not an archaeologist or an anthropologist or a politician or journalist. I try to artfully report what I am feeling and seeing." As an observer, Jones ably and consistently uncovers searing truths from unexpected sources.

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