DANCE / The man who has everything: . . . except a partner. In spite of losing Arnie Zane, Bill T Jones remains one of the world's great dancers. He talks to Anne Sacks

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HE'S STANDING at the window of an airy rehearsal room at the top of Sadler's Wells Theatre, being photographed. Bill T Jones, dancer and leading choreographer, looks like an athlete - or a film star. Tall and graceful, he crosses the room to say hello. Instead of going out, we decide to stay in the studio and talk. It is fitting, somehow: the lion in his lair.

He's flown in from Lyon, where he is part- time resident choreographer for Lyon Opera Ballet. Unfazed by his busy schedule, he's calm, reflective, easy, eloquent. Jones was diverted by dance when he was studying theatre at New York State University. His formative years were spent in the modern dance revolution in Seventies New York, where he experimented with new techniques such as contact improvisation, developing them over two decades in a prolific and controversial career. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who fell by the wayside or never matured artistically, Jones has created more than 30 distinctive works.

On stage, Jones holds the audience like Baryshnikov, with a compelling grace of movement and a forceful, booming voice (he weaves songs and dialogue into his solos). He could have been an actor, or a singer; he has extraordinary beauty and brains. But the gifts the gods gave with one hand they have taken away with the other. Now 42, he was widowed in 1988 (in every sense but the technical) when his long- time lover, partner, collaborator and confidant Arnie Zane died of an Aids-related disease. Since then, grief has become an important part of his work.

'Just before Arnie died, I couldn't work. When he did actually pass, our company was looking to me and wondering what I was going to do. They wanted to dance, so I started creating work,' he says. As a tribute, the company is still called the Bill T Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company, although only two company members remain who knew Zane. Was carrying on a dilemma? 'Yes, a big one. Someone once said to me I have the natural pull of momentum. I think I must stay with the me which is going somewhere. I don't want to sound too metaphysical, but that's the way it works.'

Jones engages fully in painful conversations, never flinching or holding back. I'm reminded of his Edinburgh Festival concert last year when alone on the stage, bare-chested and in white briefs, he gripped the audience with: 'My eyes are not my enemy. My desire is not my enemy. My dick is not my enemy. My memory is my enemy.' This confidential exchange is typical of Jones who, with Zane, made personal statements through dance about identity, race, sexuality, homophobia, censorship. He still does, creating a piece called Still Here, inspired by people with terminal illnesses.

Such a creative partnership comes once in a lifetime (if that), and 'ours was very special', says Jones. 'Now I'm developing my career and there are people whom I love and to whom I am close and who support me. But they're not doing it with me. Arnie and I were making our own experience.' As equals? 'Not as absolute equals. It was turbulent for that reason. Whose aesthetic is going to drive this? Whose decision? Whose point of view? Arnie was more abstract, more the thinker, more organised.'

It's a tragic chapter in an upbeat story. Zane's mother was a Jew, born in Lithuania; his father was Italian, born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. They met in the Bronx, married and changed their name from something unpronounceable. 'What's this say to Arnie? He comes across this black man and says, 'This is the love of my life, we're going to make a house, we're going to make a dance company, we're going to be famous. Why not? Our parents did'. It's a very American story: moving upward, breaking through, dreaming big.'

Jones and Zane met at university, when they were both 19. Zane, small and springy, was ribbed by white gay students for wanting this sleek, black man and 'a bit of colour in his meat'. He didn't care. He was in love with Jones, the tenth of 12 children. Jones's mother was 15 when she had her first child; his father was a migrant worker who moved his family from the South to rural upstate New York. 'I feel very fortunate that I'm in touch with early- 20th-century mores and that I have a historical perspective.' His mother symbolises the changes in American life. 'She had the Sixties happen to her. There was Zane first of all, this white man, and she found out that we were romantically involved. My brothers were marrying white women. There was the civil-rights movement, the violence and the drugs.'

His mother travels with him, and was on stage in 1991 when Jones unleashed Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin / The Promised Land, the most inspired and controversial of all his works. It comprised three hours of dance, narrative, dialogue, jazz, athletics and nakedness. 'My mother stood with me on stage with 62 naked people behind me, people of every size and every shape and every race and she is saying, 'It's the message of the saviour'. It's a testament to what she believes is true - her faith that we are all God's children.' The message for him? 'That I can be flexible.'

So there they were, these two boys from different worlds: young, in love, arrogant as hell, studying, dropping out to San Francisco, and returning to university. 'Arnie was a great steward. He had the courage to go for things. He said, 'don't be too inhibited'.'

Then contact improvisation revolutionised their lives. The technique, developed in New York in 1972, is a form of duet in which dancers invent the movement as they go along. The rule is that they have to keep in close contact with the other's body - ideally suited for pieces in which two men partner each other. 'The whole sexual impact was liberating,' says Jones. From the mid-1970s, Jones performed solos and duets with Zane, exploring the gender paradoxes that were then a big social issue. In 1982 they formed their company. The work became more structured, but its basis was, and still is, contact improvisation - the most varied and exciting of dance forms, because it can be slow and tender or fast and thrilling.

I tease Jones about his hair, the long Bob Marley dreadlocks that have been shaved off. He laughs. 'I was always like this. But after Arnie died, I didn't have a haircut for four years. The hair felt wonderful on stage.' He turns his head sharply to whoosh the invisible locks across a cheek. 'Then it started greying, and I cut it off out of vanity, sheer vanity. Then everyone said to me, 'Hey, what happened to your hair?', and I said: 'This is how I always was. This is me'.'