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Bill T. Jones: Review of «Dance!»

  • National Book Critics Circle


Dance is action and shape / designed in space and time / to express feelings and ideas. / ~ Bill T. Jones
Essays and Articles
By Bill T. Jones
Hyperion Books, 1998
Dance is action and shape
designed in space and time
to express feelings and ideas.
~ Bill T. Jones
You open Dance, by Bill T. Jones and Susan Kuklin.
You watch Bill T. Jones stretching, warming up, feeling
the tension and release of his muscles. He fine-tunes
each section of his body--hands, feet, fingers, toes--as if
they were highly sensitive instruments in a visceral
The 46-year-old dancer has the sinewy musculature and
confident air of the athlete he once was. His body is
almost as smooth and hairless as his head. The masklike,
terra cotta features of his face (nose flaring gently down
to its pyramidal base, lips well-defined but not--he
hastens to add--too "thick"), together with his striking
poses, suggest his second-favorite art form: sculpture.
Dance is Jones' poetic introduction to basic concepts
through images and text. But what is Bill T. Jones,
exactly? Group therapist? Pyrrhic victor of the culture
wars? Phallic totem acting out, in bouts of elegant rage,
his audience's lurid preconceptions of black
masculinity? Or is he simply what Arthur Mitchell calls
"one of the finest dance artists I've ever seen"? And, if
so, why all the controversy?
Born William Tass Jones in Bunnell, Florida, between
the end of the Korean and the beginning of Viet Nam
wars, Jones was just in time for Woodstock, where he
was electrified by Jimi Hendrix. Late 1960s and early
1970s cinema--visually and narratively hypnotic--
exerted so powerful an influence that he nearly chose
film over dance as his expressive medium Â… until
college at the State University of New York at
Binghamton, that is, where he met a boy from Queens.
His first love, Arnie Zane seduced Jones away from
track and field, where he had excelled since high school,
and into the dance studio. ("I never thought," gasped
Jones' father, "I'd have one of those in the family.") Bill
T. Jones had discovered modern dance, an art form that
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his body deeply understood.
Outspoken and articulate, Jones is noted for his use of
the spoken word in dance. He is best described as a
multimedia performance artist whose dance is conceived
in terms of image, music and text. But back in 1973,
when everyone was doing his or her own thing and the
downtown New York City loft scene was alive with
controversy over the new "postmodernism," Jones was
only just beginning, between odd jobs in Amsterdam
and San Francisco, to make his own dances, struggling
to find his form in the long shadows cast by Martha
Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Alvin
During the heyday of the Dance Theatre Workshop in
the late 1970s, the performing arts establishment finally
recognized Jones as a dancer-choreographer of unique
promise--just as the dance boom was ending. In 1982
Jones and Zane formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane
Dance Company, which toured the Far East, and in rapid
succession Jones began creating the major full-length
works through which he would emerge as perhaps the
leading black choreographer of his generation.
He would also become a lightning rod for the politically
charged storms of the 1970s and ‘80s: Should art
engage issues of identity politics? Should "elitist" art
forms receive governmental support? Is art itself a
societal luxury or a spiritual necessity?
While militantly incorporating gender and ethnicity into
his aesthetic, Jones remained suspicious of what he
called the Black Arts Movement's nationalist orthodoxy.
"I'm an artist first," he insisted, "and a black man
second." And rightly so, you feel, knowing full well that
Jones could never count on the Dance Theatre of
Harlem's conservative core audience for the kind of
ovations and financial support that he received from the
Guthrie, the Brooklyn Academy and the MacArthur
Foundation, not to mention the Berlin and Lyons opera
Jones' career, at any rate, was conspicuously successful.
But his life was falling apart. In 1988 his loving
collaborator of 17 years lay dying from AIDS in their
suburban home in Nyak, New York. Undaunted, Jones
staged a domestic "deathwatch": His sisters sang gospel
hymns while a troupe of dancers performed a kind of
21-person salute to "dance him over," as Zane's Italian-
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Essays and Articles
Jewish mother looked on in horror and disgust.
Jones' latest production, however, is a prudently
wholesome affair--a matinee performance innocent of
nudity and political overtones. Like all good children's
literature, Dance is a book that anyone can dream to, and
you close it having collaborated in a kind of imaginative
duet. HIV-positive, looking at least a decade younger
than his age, and having spent his entire career making a
spectacle of himself, this most-written-about
contemporary dance artist is still producing. And Dance-
-a divertissement of a few dozen photos by Susan
Kuklin and less than 150 words--is a book as brief as a
dancer's career, a portrait of the artist at the height of his
form. "I will never grow old," Jones says, with a note of
false bravado. Or is it sadness?
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Essays and Articles
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