Bill T. Jones Tackles History Through Contemporary Dance

November 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown profiles American artistic director, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. He has created more than 100 original works for his own company, in addition to countless others around the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bill T. Jones has long been recognized as one of this country’s leading contemporary dancers and choreographers, known for his mix of athleticism and willingness to take on big subjects from the world around him.

BILL T. JONES: Something that really was full of idealism and hope and activism, I’m always interested in.


BILL T. JONES: Oh, why? There’s no reason to live without it, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: The 10th of 12 children, Jones grew up in rural Florida and Upstate New York. He began to study classical ballet and modern dance at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he met Arnie Zane, who would become his personal and professional partner.

In 1982 they formed, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which continues to perform around the world, most recently in two works Jones created about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tackling history through dance, it’s characteristic of Jones. But, these days, he’s eager to extend his reach further.

BILL T. JONES: How do I find an audience that does not come to contemporary dance?

Coming from the African-American tradition I come from, or, let’s face it, growing up — being born in ’52 and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of the most important things said in the culture in those years came through popular musicians, about equality, about men and women, about the meaning of life, consciousness. All those things came from people who were selling records or on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” or at least they came to me, right?

So, who is a kid is out — where is the Bill T. Jones out there right now who is — wants to know what is beautiful in life, what’s worth doing in life? Am I ready for him or her?

Let me see you this way.

Bringing history to the stage

JEFFREY BROWN: Jones' latest answer is in the theater, where he's helped create and is directing a new play about, yes, a pop star and political activist, though not one who ever appeared on "Ed Sullivan."

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a folk hero to millions in Africa in the 1970s, loved for his music, called Afrobeat, a blend of Western rock, jazz, and funk, with African rhythms and chants, and also known for his willingness to challenge the military government that had taken control of Nigeria in the period after it gained independence in 1960.

"Fela! The Musical," Jones says, is about that post-colonial experience, from euphoria to repression, and how one man, himself filled with contradictions, responded.

BILL T. JONES: What happened? Something -- something happened which is -- it's all too often a familiar thing that happens in new democracies or whatever you want to call it. Fela was a child of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You present a complex man...

BILL T. JONES: Yes, he was, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... flawed in many ways, it seems...

BILL T. JONES: Yes, he was.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... all kinds of people.


JEFFREY BROWN: Angry. And...

BILL T. JONES: Angry or irate? I think that's something -- a very important distinction. What do you call a person who was a product of, blacks finally are franchised, and then they begin to cannibalize each other, they begin to betray each other in the form of dictatorships?

And his attitude, his disdain for these -- these zombies, these beasts that had taken over, it was not about race with him. It was about something else which is deeper about the betrayal of hope, betrayal.

JEFFREY BROWN: The show is staged as a performance at a club in Lagos...

SAHR NGAUJAH, actor: I'm very happy that so many of you would come out tonight, considering how dangerous this area is.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... as Fela, played by Sahr Ngaujah, talks about his early years, his political struggles, including numerous arrests...

SAHR NGAUJAH: I'm going to marry all of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and his extravagant love life. He married 27 women in a single ceremony.

Best of all, with a hugely energetic cast of dancers and a blistering Brooklyn-based band called Antibalas, he performs.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Bill T. Jones, who's had to cope with a public that often finds modern dance puzzling, the visceral connection of Fela and his audience, brought to Broadway, is vital.

BILL T. JONES: It is a show that rewards. We sing in it. We sing on stage. And the audience is invited to sing, a roomful of New Yorkers, right, 1,000-plus, singing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You clearly like that, huh?

BILL T. JONES: Love it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You like that engagement.

BILL T. JONES: Depend on it.


Expanding his audience

BILL T. JONES: It feeds me right now.

It's an opportunity to keep some other flame I have alive, which is the belief that an artist can be a popular artist and still be doing something that will hit people in all the proper places. "Fela! The Musical" is a stab at that: Come to this. Don't be afraid. You don't have to be afraid. It's OK. You can come into the theater, because I'm talking about class and I'm talking about race.

Who goes to the theater? Who puts that kind of investment into their cultural -- into their experience? Who are these people? And can I help expand that?

JEFFREY BROWN: Fela died of AIDS at age 58, one of the first public figures in Nigeria to have his death attributed to the disease. Here, too, there is a connection for Bill T. Jones. In 1987, Jones and Arnie Zane appeared on the NewsHour in a report on the toll AIDS was taking on the arts community in this country.

BILL T. JONES: Try to imagine what it is like to lose some of your most promising, most inspirational energy sources at a time when they are just beginning to realize their potential.

JEFFREY BROWN: Zane, who was battling complications from AIDS, had just choreographed a new dance.

ARNIE ZANE: Living and dying is not the big issue. The big issue is what are you going to do with your time while you are here.

JEFFREY BROWN: One year later, Arnie Zane was dead from AIDS.

Jones, himself HIV-positive since 1985, is now 57, and has kept their company going.

Do you remember back then thinking about the -- this far into the future, and imagining that it would -- the company would still be going?

BILL T. JONES: When you're that young, you know, you don't think about the future. I mean, the art we made was supposed to be, you do it now, you throw it away.

So, no, I didn't think about that. I just knew that I had this desire, this need and a capacity to do this thing, which was to dance, myself, and to keep this company together. But, hallelujah, that's -- I'm still here, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is now performing its Lincoln pieces around the country. And "Fela! The Musical" opened this week on Broadway.

JIM LEHRER: And you can watch more of the interview with -- with Bill T. Jones on our Art Beat page at Also there, our series of conversations with National Book Award winners, including Phillip Hoose, author of "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice." He won the prize for young people's literature.