Metro Weekly

Bill T. Jones on his epic new trilogy, becoming an elder gay, and the joys of being naked

The dance legend prepares to leads audiences through a three-night odyssey at the Kennedy Center

Bill T. Jones — Photo: Out Magazine/Roger Erickson Studio

Inside a New York City rehearsal studio, not too long ago, Bill T. Jones was feeling fired up. The Artistic Director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company had just presented a work-in-progress performance of Dora, an epic piece he had conceived and choreographed for the ensemble he co-founded in 1982 with his late partner Arnie Zane.

Jones had by then devoted years to devising Dora, an opus about the extraordinary life of Dora Amelan, a French Jewish nurse who survived World War II and who happens to be the mother of Jones’ partner and collaborator of the past two decades, Bjorn Amelan. The work eventually would comprise the first movement of Jones’ Analogy Trilogy, which sees its D.C. premiere next week at the Kennedy Center.

Heading into that open rehearsal, Jones had felt he “really was finding a stride, a way of bringing the dancers into the world of speaking and singing” Dora’s story. “We had invited people, and there was a person who I didn’t expect to be there who had been a former board member for New York Live Arts, who had left the board, but she showed up,” he recalls. “And when I asked was there any questions during the showing of Dora, how did she say it? She said, ‘Is she Jewish? You’re a black gay man, and you’re going to have to answer to the dance world why you would want to make a piece about a Jewish woman. I mean, you tell me.’ I was flabbergasted. I was a little bit incensed.”

A two-time Tony Award-winner and a Kennedy Center Honoree, Jones is unaccustomed to being told he needs to justify his intent in depicting a story that moves him.

“And I mean nobody tells me, nobody ever told Arnie and me, what we would or would not do, or what we would or would not make a piece about,” Jones says. “And I certainly have not made my reputation on asking permission. But she said it, and I began to think there was something to the idea that maybe I could look even closer to home for what I was in search of.”

So, rather than dismiss the comment, Jones built on the criticism to create other opportunities for connecting with his audience. He incorporated another biographical piece, revolving around his nephew, Lance T. Briggs, a former dancer, model, songwriter, choreographer, exotic dancer and male escort, whose life has been a struggle through addiction and recovery.

The resulting Lance: Pretty AKA The Escape Artist forms a disco-, house- and R&B-infused middle chapter to Analogy Trilogy. In addition to Dora: Tramontane, the trilogy also includes Ambros: The Emigrant, another epic life story, based on W.G. Sebald’s crypto-queer novel The Emigrants. The three individual sections — Dora, Lance, and Ambros — are performed by the 11-member Jones/Zane Company over three separate nights.

“I would encourage your readers to see as many of the parts as possible,” says Jones. “Don’t ask me which one is the most important. For various reasons, there’s one about a Jewish woman in World War II, there’s one about a contemporary young black man, and the third one is about a quasi-fictitious character with a very colorful and poetic life, full of romance and tragedy. Pick your poison, as they say.”

Bill T. Jones — Photo: Christina Lane

METRO WEEKLY: Beyond associating the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company with you personally, people think about it being a company that presents dancers of diverse sizes, ages and racial backgrounds. Is that how you see the company?

BILL T. JONES: Yeah, it is. I thought that was news maybe 15 years ago. It seems now that there’s many more people of that description, but maybe not. We’ve been doing it for quite a while. Yes, the diversity in body types and so on, which started, I suppose, with Arnie Zane, who was five-foot-four and I’m six-foot-one. He was Jewish-Italian, I’m African American, if that’s what you’re meaning. That has been in the past very important to who we were. We make the best work that we can, the work is always asking questions about form or content, poetry, the place where the personal and the private come together, the way political issues take on a personal cast, and personal issues take on a political cast at times.

MW: This particular work, Analogy, draws upon biographical stories of your husband’s mother in part one and your own nephew in part two. Did you have to do a lot of persuading to get them to share their experiences for this?

JONES: Not really. Both of them came about I would say indirectly. As you know Dora Amelan is, as you say, my husband’s mother, but it must have been, I guess, soon to be 15 years ago, if not more, I was enjoying so much knowing her and hearing her stories that I decided to put on a video camera at that time and have her just talk. I was going to make it as a gift for my companion and his brother, as she was a great storyteller. Some of the stories were stories that maybe they had not heard or that, as she was aging, were being lost.

It sat in its original form, and at one point, [Bjorn] took it upon himself to transcribe them. I was able to read them, the interviews with Dora. Around that time I had been reading W.G. Sebald’s brilliant work, out of which Ambros, the third section, comes. The book is called The Emigrants, and so I thought I would try to put Dora and Ambros together, because they were both dealing with Europe. Although the novel does not deal with the second World War, Dora is all about the second World War. But there was something about Europe, displacement, oppression of Jewishness, the oppression of outsiderness, all those things, and I thought my dancers would benefit from hearing from Dora, and actually trying to embody, since Dora was the age of some of them when the war started. That had been my first idea, I was going to do those two pieces together. It was a little bit too much, I really didn’t know how to attack it. So I decided to do Dora alone, and that was a great idea. So much of it did continue to flow with the help of Nick Hallett, our composer, and Bjorn was only too eager to make the décor, and that was a very, very important thing.

Also at that time, I had begun a series of weekly phone calls with my nephew, Lance Theodore Briggs, who, I believe, had just gotten out of jail. He and I had always been close, he was my sister’s only male child, and as it turns out, he’s gay, but I didn’t really know him as a gay person. I knew him as my nephew, and he had a pretty difficult life. He came to live with Arnie and I briefly. That didn’t work out. Arnie was getting more ill, and he had to go back to San Francisco, something that was very, very difficult for him. My nephew, he felt abandoned, he didn’t understand. He was too young to understand what we were going through as a household, and he was not mature enough to help us build a quote, gay household. To this day, he and I talk about it in those terms. I began to video record the talks, and I knew that there was something there.

All of this was being hashed over imperfectly between bouts with anger, between the two of us. Who remembers what. But the recordings were there and I began to relate to his questions in the way that I did with Dora: where does your name come from, when were you born, tell me something about your family, your past, all those things. Dora was maybe 85 pages, Lance was 33 or so one-hour recordings. There’s hours and hours and hours of he and I talking. We had to translate and transcribe all of those tapes. I began to see that the whole scope of this — the themes of family, the themes of identity, themes of art, love, sadness, all those things which I found in Dora, were there in spades in my nephew. When Lance: Pretty AKA the Escape Artist came together, I got the courage to go back to the original inspiration which was the semi-fictional character of Ambros from Sebald’s The Emigrant, which is where it all started. That’s how the trilogy came together.

MW: Someone questioned why you as a gay, black man are telling the story of a Jewish woman, but then you came around to really considering that criticism. How much is that responsiveness usually a part of your process?

JONES: I’m very responsive. I’m a reactive kind of a personality. My work comes from questions to myself, oftentimes conflictual feelings that result in certain types of questions. It’s not that unusual, I think it was more, it confused me in a way. I don’t think that this woman had a right to say you have no right to make a piece about a Jewish woman, you’re a black, gay man, what’s she talking about? But, I did think I wanted to try to make something that wasn’t quite as mythologized as the life of this very brave woman who I love named Dora Amelan, or Ambros Adelwarth, a German man, I believe born in the 1890s, who came to New York in 1911, becomes the manservant of a Jewish man. The men had this very muted relationship, a very glamorous kind of Merchant Ivory experience together. The pieces began to speak together, and they were speaking through the echo chamber of my own heart, mind and preoccupation. That’s how it’s always worked.

Bill T. Jones — Photo: Stephanie Berger

MW: Each section of Analogy occupies its own evening. Why are they not performed together?

JONES: Even though I knew each work when we premiered them like a year apart — [once] we had the opportunity to put them all on one afternoon, amazing connections happened. It’s different night after night after night, but this is what the circumstances of the Kennedy Center engagement have left us with — we have to do them on separate days. I would encourage people to try to see all three. I know that’s difficult for people, but it rewards if you do. Unfortunately, we cannot do them all on the same day.

MW: Did you see aspects of yourself, not just in Lance but in Dora and Ambros?

JONES: Yes, of course I saw aspects. If you’re wondering what aspects? You have to work harder to get to that.

MW: What aspects then? It’s sort of obvious what of yourself you might have seen in Lance, but it’s less obvious with Dora. So, describe your connection to her.

JONES: I don’t know, she is my mother-in-law. Extremely broad-minded person. Very disciplined, French Jewish woman. Her father’s father and mother were quite Orthodox, so Dora had witnessed her parents softening those traditions. They were not a religious family. In my case, my mother was a very religious, black woman, a southern Baptist with very, very profound feelings about ethics and responsibility, and also something about how sad the world is.

The world is a veil of sorrow, and all they would do is turn to God, and you will get your reward after this life. And I know that I was going against that most of my life. Dora also realized that life is now a time for living and acting. She was not putting all of her belief in the spiritual realm. That was similar. Dora was interested in people, and she was interested in and she married an artist. That made her particularly interesting to me. Her son is a very kind, intelligent man, who has a whole other kind of upbringing, but bonded very well with African-American people in a way that was not full of neuroses or obsession. His ability to show affection and love without boast is something that came from Dora. It’s something that I had to work to do myself, to love across racial and ethic lines. But Dora, who worked in Africa as a nurse and nutritionist, was able to love and stretch past the obvious lines of race and religion and so on. I saw that in myself as well. What can I say? She gave the world a man that I love.

But, Lance, we’re quite different, actually. You know? I’m a reader, he’s not. I grew up in the hills of upstate New York. He grew up in San Francisco in the ’70s, which was, when you think about it, a nightmare time to have a young, gay child growing up in San Francisco. I never met a gay person until I was 19, 20 years old. I did not grow up in the inner city, he did. He was the only male in a family of women. There were eight boys and four girls in my family. His mother, my sister, who is only slightly older than I, had made a very big return to the black church. I never went back to the black church. He sees himself as a real Christian. The life he’s led, he still feels very much Christ’s child. I do not. We have a lot of things different, but I suppose our gayness and my notion of gayness was forged in gay liberation of the ’70s. He was born in 1970. In a way, I think that’s part of what Analogy/Lance is about. It’s an inter-generational conversation between two men trying to find out how they really do love each other at this point in both their lives.

MW: The press notes for Analogy describe your present preoccupation with developing your company into an ensemble that not only dances, but also sings and speaks. Is this the future of dance, or the future of your dance company?

JONES: Well, first of all, I don’t call it a dance company anymore. We are a performance ensemble, and I don’t know what the future of the art form is. I know there’s no guide book that tells you: “You will start out sure that you represent the way forward for a generation. Time will pass, and you will see that has shattered and gone in so many directions, aesthetic, political, social, financial, and you, Bill T. Jones, must find a way to hold the course.” That’s a really hard thing. You have to understand your art making in a broader sense as being the part of art making that has gone on in the past, and is going on in the present, but you also have to focus on what is you. You can’t be thinking about what is the dance world doing. I mean, of course I think about it, but I’ve got to stay true to my impulses, and I love to read, I love to think, I like to think visually.

I have people who surround me and a group of people who I trust, like my associate artistic director, Janet Wong, Kim Cullen, who heads our organization at the New York Live Arts, Kyle Maude, who is our producing director, and then there’s my husband, Bjorn, who is a very talented artist, who is the creative director of the company, who I can always bounce ideas off of. He has a wide bandwidth in terms of understanding various cultural effects, and their relevance or lack of relevance. Our relationship is a healthy place for sorting out how to go forward as an artist, as a man, as two men who are committed to each other, who are no longer young boys.

I am, I think officially, considered a senior citizen now. Never thought it would happen. I think for many gay men, that’s a revelation. I was born in ’52, so what I’m about to say is influenced by being a person born in the middle of the 20th-century. We would be young forever. You had to be young forever because the gay culture didn’t want you if you were old. Suddenly, oh my God, you’re an elder. What does it mean to be an elder? You never thought, AIDS crisis, whatever, you never thought you’d be around, but you are. What are you doing for yourself, for your loved ones, for your art? How do you participate in the world? How have you dealt with your demons?

Self-loathing is a profound one for many of us. Gay people, you’ve got to deal with self-loathing. Self-introspection is always good. Self-loathing is not. And, can you be trusted with other people’s feelings, because I think there’s something about the world as it is, but also gay culture that makes one turn inward. A lot of us are still high school boys — I don’t know about girls — high school boys wanking off in the solitude of our rooms. We go through life as feeling it’s always this furtive action, that we can’t make contact, we can’t make connections. That’s no longer good enough for me, and I hope the gay culture in general we’re allowed to become adults now with all the problems that adults have.

Bill T. Jones — Photo: Robin Holland

MW: In addition to considering yourself senior, do you also consider yourself retired as a performer? When do you dance?

JONES: Well, it’s funny you should say that. I had said up until just very recently that my last public performance was at the Louvre. I think that was 12 years ago. I decided my body was aching and I just wanted to turn my attention to other things, other than my own performing. That was good enough. I would continue to move when I was very, very happy or very, very profoundly emotional. Some of my best performances would happen when Bjorn would be cooking dinner, and I would put on some music in New Mexico. He has a big living room in this gorgeous adobe house, and visiting him and everyone is getting mellow, I would move. Sometimes for dollars. Tony Morrison asked me to do a solo for Mr. Obama’s second inauguration, a fundraiser, here in my local town of Nyack — it’s online. I’m dancing to Al Greene’s “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?” That all being said, after the trilogy was made, I began to think what else?

I had an opportunity to work at the gorgeous Armory here in New York, make a new work, and what would that work be? That work would be trying to talk about the trajectory of being a solo, lonely figure. I’d say, yes, I was with Arnie Zane, yes, I was part of a kind of community of improvisors or makers, American Dance Asylum, being an example, but I was black in a white avant garde. And it was only when I was reading Melville’s Moby Dick, yet again, that I fixated on the character, Pip. The black boy — kind of a cabin boy — who gets abandoned in the Pacific Ocean, and he’s bobbing around and the water “jeeringly kept his finite body up,” says Mr. Melville, “but drowned the infinite of his soul.” Things began to speak to me about my feelings of loneliness, the transcendental longing I had had all these years to quote “tell truth,” to find the truth in beauty and the beauty in truth, to survive in a lonely ocean.

MW: Do you have a title for this?

JONES: It’s called Deep Blue Sea. Initially, I thought, “Well, why don’t you make that 100 Black Men, and it sounded good, it would definitely read well on paper, wouldn’t it? But, that’s not really the way I operate. My world has always been multi-racial, multicultural, and it continues to be that in my company. I purposely try to keep it as diverse as possible, and as much as I would love to take refuge in my identity as a black man, I want to have that identity as a black man in a broader identity. I want to stay in the world. I want to believe what Martin Luther King said about “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.” I want to be able to take hands with people who are different than I am. And all this is work. With middle age, one settles in a certain way of thinking and feeling. One decides who your friends are, one decides what your tastes are like.

That’s why it very good to constantly be interacting with people who are younger. Frustrating as all hell. Millennials will drive you fucking crazy, but there’s something about what they don’t know that you do, and what they know and that you don’t, which is rich and it keeps one afloat, and it gives direction. It certainly has for me. So Deep Blue Sea will be premiered in 2020, and it will be I think in April of that year and then we’ll be touring it around some places in the States and in Europe.

MW: That’s exciting. As a choreographer, does it ever feel like all the dance language has been written, and now it’s just about reorganizing the same movements into different phrases?

JONES: It’s interesting you should say that. Arnie Zane and I formulated that we were not trying to invent a new language, but we were interested in what we called syntax, how we took existing languages, be they stylistic or aesthetic languages, and re-combining them and juxtaposing them, and sometimes just crashing them into each other, as our two personalities crashed into each other. That’s what I thought. I don’t know if the generation of young makers now even depend on the term dance.

MW: You are the only person that I’ve interviewed who lives on a poster on my wall, shot by Herb Ritts, and you’re nude in the poster. A friend’s daughter who was here, she was nine at the time, she asked, “Why is he naked?” I tried to answer the question thoughtfully and helpfully —

JONES: Well, why wouldn’t he be naked? Why are we clothed? Why are we wearing clothes, is the question, I think. Naked is our natural form.

MW: But how have you dealt with that “Why is he naked” question?

JONES: Oh, nobody asks me why am I naked. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I was an art model in college. My body was this thing that people would study for the anatomy of it. I was brazen in terms of sensuality and freedom. I loved to sweat. We were fighting against all sorts of body fear as men, as women, as black people, as white people. So being naked was almost kind of a symbolic expression of freedom, and to this day, nudity is still a potent symbol in the culture. Who is nude, and why are they nude? Are they nude because of their own volition? Do they have agency? Are they being exploited?

My nudity has always been [that] I feel empowered when I was naked. I felt I had nothing to hide, and my black body — my strong black body — is a result of a lot of forces, good and evil. Evil in the sense that I have the body of a field worker, which is what my people were and I’m proud of it. Now, I don’t show the body in the same way. I’m getting older and all, but I’m still comfortable in my skin. My knees and lower back might disagree, but I’m comfortable in my skin. So, Herb Ritts, maybe, did he play to my vanity. He said, “I want to do some art photos.” One day in Los Angeles, I was about ready to go back to New York, and he had me up on the roof of a studio there with this crew of like five people moving almost like a bit of choreography, handing him camera after camera. It was a good shoot. He loved the photos, and he had a show coming up at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He made me the subject of that show — without asking me, of course. And then he proceeded to work out a deal with Donna Karan, so for a year after that, I was used in all of her advertising. I did not get paid for that other than clothing, which pissed me off, but it was a learning experience. I’m a generous person, very generous and my generosity wants to be, “Look I am not afraid. Racist, homophobic, bigoted culture, I stand in front of you naked, and I feel beautiful. I trust your gaze, and I trust my body.” That’s why it is all right that the photos are naked. They’re beautiful photos. They’re kind of cowardly in the fact that they couldn’t keep my dick in. They had to airbrush out the dick.

MW: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.

JONES: Well, don’t ask me, ask the publisher. Why did they do that? Because, they wanted this glossy coffee table book, and Herb was a commercial photographer, so he had an instinct about what he can and cannot do. That’s how they did it. It’s all a learning experience.

MW: This leads to a question about another famous gay photographer you posed for: Have you seen the film Mapplethorpe, or do you intend to?

JONES: Which film Mapplethorpe? There’s so many of them, aren’t there? There’s been several documentaries. I participated in at least one or two. What are you saying, though?

MW: How does it feel to witness circles that you swirled in, people that you knew, depicted as this crystallized era?

JONES: Like everything else in life, there is no guidebook that will prepare you for the machinations, if not the crushing effect, of time. Ideals that were once ideals and taboos, with passage of time are sometimes distorted or crushed into unrecognizability. Things that were minor at one point, suddenly are the center of the culture. It’s all part of my philosophical, spiritual understanding of what this thing is called life. And that’s why I’m an artist and not a politician. That’s why I’m an artist and not a teacher. I want to understand — in the way that religious people understand through their religion — I want to understand the world through art.

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s Analogy Trilogy runs March 28-30, in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater as part of the Direct Current series. Tickets are $29-79. Call (202) 467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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