People talk when choreographer Bill T. Jones comes to town. Twin Citians were a-twitter in 1990 when several dozen local dancers stripped to their bare souls on the Northrop Auditorium stage during a partial production of his "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land." And when New Yorker critic Arlene Croce refused to see Jones' more recent creation, "Still/Here," instead blasting it as "victim art," the openly gay choreographer again became the buzz of the dance world.
So Minnesotans may be surprised by Jones's current work, "We Set Out Early...Visibility Was Poor," which arrives at Northrop later this month for a single performance on Sept. 26 (see Q Calendar on p. 24 for details). Unlike Jones' previous two works, which grappled with such hot-button subjects as racism and terminal illness, the newest creation is a work of pure visual aesthetics--in the artist's own words, "less topical." Aided by a pair of sculptural elements created by the company's associate director and Jones' partner, Bjorn Amelan, the dancers tell a tale void of any obvious politics. The message, in this case, is the movement.
The New York-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, named in part for Jones' partner who died of AIDS in 1988, has performed numerous times in the Twin Cities, and Jones' ties to Minnesota are likely to grow stronger in the years ahead: He recently received a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation grant to develop relationships with communities outside of New York City. Jones chose Minnesota as one of the two communities with which he'll collaborate, in part because of his strong ties to the Walker Art Center. "Life Performs Art," a retrospective look at Jones' oeuvre, as well as that of artists Meredith Monk and Merce Cunningham, is on view at the Walker through Sept. 20.
Q Monthly spoke with Jones in August as he was wrapping up a commission in Wales.
How did your long-standing relationship with the Walker and the Twin Cities begin?
I've been coming to Minneapolis since 1981. I was invited to come as an affiliate artist at the Walker under Nigel Redden, who at the time was curator for performing arts. I was invited to come and work with lots of different communities. Nigel arranged for me to work with local dancers, and I made a piece at Nicollet Island called "Break," which three years later was taped and broadcast on KTCA-TV. I came back again later with Arnie Zane as part of the New Dance America. We did "Secret Pastures" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" there. Minneapolis has always been a place where I've been able to work.
Do Minnesotans cotton to your work?
The idea of a cool Minnesotan has never really been my experience. I've always found them to be a pretty passionate people who are open-minded and liberal and who wanted to try things.
You recently received a four-year grant to work with communities outside of New York, and you chose Minnesota as one of two places. What are your plans?
It would be really good to continue some of the investigations that I am making right now, but it would also be good to tap some communities that wouldn't normally come to my performances--young people, people of color--the same audiences all arts organizations are trying to get right now.
So you'd like to cultivate a different audience for your work?
I never thought about demographics until recently. When I was awarded this grant, I began to think, "Well, who are we missing?" With "Uncle Tom's Cabin," we threw the net wide and invited a lot of people to come, we wanted a wide range of people to come and participate, even do nudity. And it was quite an event, Northrop Auditorium was completely sold-out on the night we did it, and I can't believe those were all just dance-world people. And when we did "Still/Here" in the Twin Cities, it was a sold-out audience, and I know those weren't just all people from the dance world. I think we have been hitting a lot of different demographics for the last few projects that we've done there.
"We Set Out Early" differs significantly from "Still/Here" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It isn't necessarily focused on terminal disease, racism, or an emotional
This latest work is perhaps less topical, it's more about aesthetic issues--although everything aesthetic for me is political. The work does not have a theme--it's not about racism or sexuality or morality or anything topical. So it's a bit harder sell. It's more about the act of looking.
As an artist, are you shifting directions?
I'm focusing on fewer elements and turning my attention to the craft of making movement. I don't want to force together many issues. I need to [change] that right now. I need to make things that can exist free of my personality, free of my story, free of the topical, which changes all the time. Something that's very important to the society at large right now may not be very important in 20 years. Yet there are themes--talk about power, loss, sexuality--that can be explored without talking about the topical, the literal.
If viewers are familiar with your previous, more "heart-on-your-sleeve" work, how will they respond to the more aesthetically driven "We Set Out Early"?
They'll have to move with me if they're interested in my art. If they're interested in my personality or my story, then we'll part ways. I'm an artist, I don't do therapy on stage and I don't ask that of people. I am a poet and an artist--and if they're interested in that, then they'll want to see what my latest language is.
Your partner, Bjorn Amelan, designed two of the set elements for the "We Set Out Early" set--a sculpture and cocoon-like piece. What do they add to the dance?
They are in some ways like protagonists in the piece. They have one character, then they transform. They have another character, they transform again. In a way they are like another moving personality on stage.
The metal sculpture in the show in some ways reminds me of the art that one would have seen in the early part of this century: modernist, gleaming geometric forms, striving for some sort of transcendental vision. The sculpture then becomes a cart, something very pedestrian and with all sorts of overtones-- people working the earth, refugees, people who are on some sort of a trip.
The cocoon, Bjorn says, is on one level a textural counterpoint to the metallic sheen of the sculpture. But it's also something meteorological, like a cloud, the sun, the moon.
Like the changing scenery on a trip....
The objects are resonant. The Walker, for example, marked the beginning of a journey--not the beginning for me, but a very important time when I was moving out into the international scene with Arnie Zane, and we were finding our way like a whole generation of artists.... "We Set out Early" is as much about me and Arnie and our company as it is about our whole generation.
By the same token, maybe it's about the cycle of all young artists or young people who start out trying to make their mark, making mistakes, sometimes going backwards, sometimes going forward, but often you really don't know what you're doing. But if you're worth your salt, you're driven. You keep going.
Do perceive yourself as a role model for other artists, African Americans, or gays?
[Laughing.] I appreciate the question, but when I did a piece with Toni Morrison and Max Roach at Lincoln Center, a woman there referred to us as icons. That made me feel very uncomfortable. An icon is something that is frozen and that some people must break. With icon status, you have to be very careful. It sounds good, but what it means is that people think that they've figured you out. You have been made into a little item that sits on a shelf, that some worship and some must destroy. I don't chose to be either one right now, I'm a living, breathing man and artist who is trying to figure out what this life means and how can I make something both meaningful and beautiful.
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