Dance: Still here, still stirring

The last time Bill T Jones premiered a work of dance-theatre, he ended up on the cover of 'Time'. Jenny Gilbert met the controversial choreographer
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IT'S HARD to concentrate on the job in hand when confronted with a man like Bill T Jones. Chiselled of bone, burnished of skin, almost sphinx-like in his composure, he has a beauty that makes you blink, blink again, then try not to stare. He recently took a turn on the catwalk for Donna Karan. He graced the cover of photographer Herb Ritts's latest book of portraits. America's People magazine named him one of the most gorgeous men in the world. He has known himself to be HIV positive for more than 12 years. Twelve years and he's still here, still making choreography, still flying a standard for super-articulate, gay, black America with an undauntedness that suggests he has come to regard that hovering shadow as more of a challenge than a curse.

Bill T Jones last impinged on British consciousness four years ago when the US media furore over his dance piece, aptly named Still/Here, prompted the South Bank Show to investigate. Still/Here was dance-theatre based on videos made during a two-year series of "survival workshops" in the US. People of all ages suffering all kinds of terminal illness volunteered to record their responses to Jones's questions about how they had come to terms (or not) with imminent death. Their words supplied the text of the piece (affectingly banal and poetic by turns), and the gestures they used to express their condition formed the basis of the choreography, performed by healthy professional dancers.

Curiously, it was not the work itself but one leading critic's response to the idea of it that kicked up the stink. "Victim art!" accused the New Yorker's Arlene Croce, who refused to see the piece on the grounds that it was unreviewable, then wrote 4,000 words explaining why, "by working dying people into his act," Jones had "put himself beyond the reach of criticism". He was, she wrote, "the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs". The American liberal-arts lobby was up in arms. The face of Bill T Jones appeared on the cover of Time. Perhaps for the first time ever, modern dance was front-page news.

Did the media over-react? "The media does what it does," says Jones, sagely.

"The incident made you very famous," I say.

"I was famous before," he counters, with a quietness and firmness to banish the minutest suspicion of calculation on his part. It works. To listen to Bill T Jones talk is to surrender one's will to his charisma. In fact, it's tempting to regard the whole interview as an on-going piece of performance art, so controlled are his responses, so richly modulated the honey-dark voice that can turn the most straightforward question into an opportunity for stirring political rhetoric.

"Are men and women equal? Are blacks and whites of the same intelligence? We can disagree about those things. But we can't disagree about our mortality, the fact that we all have a body and we are all going to die ..." He pauses to let that word resonate a little. "Still/Here was not designed to shock anyone; it came out of a line of questioning. I saw there were a lot of people out there like me: people who were grieving, people who had lost, people afraid of losing. It seemed to me something that we could all share, this question of mortality. I needed to ask that question in 1994, but do I need to ask that question now? No. What I need to make now is a work that affirms my love for making art."

Thus Jones's new piece, which opens at the Peacock Theatre this week, is about as far the other side of so-called victim art as it is possible to go. We Set Out Early ... Visibility Was Poor may sound like a line of TS Eliot, but Jones made it up "to read like the first line of a story or poem that promises to chronicle a community's adventure, a journey into the millennium if you will". It uses great slabs of real music: Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, some tunefully spare John Cage, and a powerfully emotional symphony by the Baltic composer Peteris Vasks. The choreography is in Jones's own eclectic style, which derives in the most part from "dancing to the music as I might to a pop song, moving in the moment, solving the problems from breath to breath". He videotapes these sessions, then sits down with his rehearsal director to decide which passages she will codify, learn, and teach to the company of 10. For the first time, in We Set Out Early ..., Jones has entirely written himself out of the show.

He takes great pleasure, he says, in watching his movement ideas "flow out of my body and into bodies that are very, very different from mine". But that doesn't really answer the question of why he's not appearing with the company that bears his name. It also bears the name, incidentally, of his late partner Arnie Zane, who died of Aids a full decade ago. No, he's not still mourning Zane, he says (he prefers to say he's "recovering"), but "this dance company is the child that he and I had. That's sentimental to a point, but the company has to be a monument to that relationship. No matter how I change, I'm enforcing a continuity on my life, and it's continuity that people long for in this fragmented world."

He still "luurves" to dance, he says, and he certainly looks in good trim, but other calls are being made on his time now. The still-rumbling arguments of Still/Here have left him a sought-after public speaker in the US and elsewhere on subjects ranging from bereavement to sexual politics and race. The fact of HIV - what he calls "that terrible gift" - no longer preoccupies him: "I have to take care of myself, but at the age of 45, as a performer, I'd be doing that anyway." His new partner, an improbably pale-skinned French-born Israeli named Bjorn (true, all true), now produces the decor for Jones's dances and has given him his entree to the visual-art and fashion set.

But the lessons of the Still/Here project are still very present for Bill T Jones. "What I've learnt about identity politics, what I've learnt about pain and anger, is that they will always be there," he says. "But there is something that unites us, and that has to do with striving for that which is beautiful and true. Don't wait, that's what the dying people told me. Don't wait. Find what you love and give yourself to it now."

! Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company: Peacock, WC2 (0171 314 8800), Tues-Sat, 8pm. Bill T Jones will give a pre-performance talk on Thurs at 7pm.