Bill T Jones: Leap of faith

He's a legend of American contemporary dance, HIV positive, and his latest work is so contentious his friends have refused to see it. Jenny Gilbert meets the uncompromising Bill T Jones
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The Independent Culture

When you've lived with HIV as long and as publicly as Bill T Jones, there's a natural reluctance to dwell on it. What's new to say? It's a full 10 years since the dancer/choreographer made his notorious Still/Here - the piece The New Yorker expended several thousand words decrying as "victim art". At 52, Bill T is, if anything, even more emphatically still here: still the provocateur, still making dances, still talking about them with a honeyed fluency that amounts almost to oratory, still - unbelievably - putting in solo appearances on stage, a rippling column of fire and silk, six-foot-two and still, dammit, hauntingly beautiful.

When you've lived with HIV as long and as publicly as Bill T Jones, there's a natural reluctance to dwell on it. What's new to say? It's a full 10 years since the dancer/choreographer made his notorious Still/Here - the piece The New Yorker expended several thousand words decrying as "victim art". At 52, Bill T is, if anything, even more emphatically still here: still the provocateur, still making dances, still talking about them with a honeyed fluency that amounts almost to oratory, still - unbelievably - putting in solo appearances on stage, a rippling column of fire and silk, six-foot-two and still, dammit, hauntingly beautiful.

British dance fans have some catching up to do on the Jones phenomenon. Though the rangy American has dropped by at Sadler's Wells a few times over the years, the UK tour that starts this week is a company first, celebrating two decades of the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with programmes designed to fill gaps in our knowledge. What the retrospective will not entirely explain is the continued spectral presence of Zane, Jones's partner in life as in dance who died of Aids in 1988 but whose name remains defiantly up there on the shop front.

The conundrum Jones would prefer audiences to dwell on is that of the work itself: work that was not intended to last 20, 30 years (what contemporary dance is?), but which he is intrigued to find yields fresh resonances when exposed to a very different world. In the week that the French government announced its ban on the wearing of religious headgear in schools last December, Jones's company re-opened the refurbished Lille opera house with Another Another History of Collage [sic], an old work he made with Zane. It's a Dadaist celebration of human diversity with multiple changes of costume that at one point includes - startlingly - a dancer wearing Victoria's Secret underwear and a chador, an image that resonates in ways no one could have predicted in 1988.

"Arnie and I were doing something intuitive back then," Jones reflects. "As a duo, we were all about diversity: the small, wiry, Italian-Jewish white man and the tall, tall black man; and in creating our company, we were creating a world in which collage could be the norm. Now, I realise, that piece speaks about the impossibility of collage. And for a man whose life has been devoted to promoting diversity, that's hard. We progressives, all round the world, still strive for that. But in the last 20 years the world has suffered incredible setbacks, not least the rise in religious fundamentalism. Nowadays that piece plays in a completely different way. It uses its eye candy - all those fun costume changes - to talk about something that is urgent. Arnie and I wanted to create a vision of the world we wanted to live in. Sounds great. But then, does art really change the world? And what is art's relation to the hard truth? The answer shakes Bill T Jones's idealism, I have to say."

It can be disconcerting when Jones slips into rhetorical mode and refers to himself in the third person, which he does quite often. But you get the feeling that it's not so much an affectation as a way of distancing himself from his high-priest status. In America, at least, he is regarded as a kind of dance oracle - the man who can be relied on to grasp whatever nettle needs to be grasped, a master of polemic in a field you least expect to find it. The 10th of 12 children in a migrant worker's family, Jones spent his early years travelling up and down the US's east coast as his parents followed the crop seasons. It was then, singing work songs in tractor yards and watching grown-ups from the shadows of the juke joints, that he began his life in dance. He came of age in the Sixties with Woodstock and the music of The Doors, and went to college - where he met Zane - at the height of militant student activism in the early Seventies. Given this history, and the loss of Zane to Aids, it was natural that Jones should engage with ideas about sexuality, race and mortality, if only to impose order on chaos.

Yet Jones insists that his work is more about style than issues. He can sort of understand, he says, why people saw his piece, Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin, that way. "But what was polemical about having my mother, Estella Jones, on stage, praying in her most sincere way, dressed in her Sunday best, while I danced next to her? I think that for me was a profoundly post-modern gesture toward my art and her art, her belief system and mine. Some people saw it as a comment about race. For me it was about how we talk about difference." And what about Still/Here, the piece that caused all the fuss? Jones sighs deeply, the sigh of a man whose "gentle waltz with the media", as he calls it, has sometimes pushed him to the brink. "People said, well, he took a stance for people with Aids. But that's not true. To this day I've never made a piece about Aids. So you have a man whose companion dies of Aids, a man who himself comes out publicly as HIV positive. Therefore, oh-my-god, you poor thing. Everything that you make, then, must be about 'your imminent death'? Well, Still/Here was trying to defuse that. By reaching out to a broad community of people, most of whom were women dealing with breast cancer, and asking them questions like, how do you live?, how do you love?, how do you make plans?, we were trying to normalise this 'tragedy', saying that death has always been with us, always will be. Of course I was also trying to put my own fear about my condition into context. But I was saying: this is life, and you have to find a way to deal with it."

London audiences of the company's retrospective will see video excerpts of "Estella's Prayer" from Uncle Tom's Cabin (featuring Jones's late mother) and a revival of Still/Here, now re-thought and re-cast as The Phantom Project: Still Here Looking On. In it Jones not so much returns to the past, but puts the spirit of the 1994 work in the context of 30 years of dance production, himself narrating.

He has always had a weakness for wordy titles, and his newest piece succumbs with a vengeance. What's more, it has the potential for deep offence. Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger finds Jones back on agitating form. Some of his best friends, he says, have refused to see it, but he has never embraced political correctness, and the N-word, "ugly, irredeemable epithet" that it is, is in his opinion ripe for being tried by fire on stage.

Jones's work is based on a short story by Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), one of the group of American Deep South writers that included Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. O'Connor was repelled, fascinated and sometimes bleakly amused by the religious fundamentalism she observed in rural Georgia, and her 1955 story brims with bigotry as well as the possibility of forgiveness. It's about an old redneck farmer and his grandson who go on a day trip to Atlanta where they find themselves so out of place among the black community that they end up as the "artificial niggers" of O'Connor's title.

"My proposition," says Jones, "and art is always about a proposition, is what if I ask the audience to engage in reading a short story while trying to read a modern dance? So I put two actors on stage to narrate the story, simply read O'Connor's text, no tricks. And the dance sets out to make the most interesting architectural and musical relationships around it." Of course, Jones being a formalist choreographer, he doesn't do narrative, so what you see is far from being a simple illustration, but rather a shifting collage (another collage) of the text's imagery and incidents, with all 10 members of the company - male and female, black and white - at some point taking the roles of the grandfather and boy.

It's an approach, Jones believes, that tests the true diversity of his company. "What happens when Flannery O'Connor's world - a world in which you could use and publish the word nigger - is entered into ours? What happens when a 65-year-old bigot is represented by a tall white woman, and his grandson by a short Mexican man, or the grandfather by a tall black man, and the boy by a short Turkish woman? Do they bear any relationship to the nigger in the protagonist's head? That's why I'm tackling this story. It all springs from my and Arnie's notion of imagining a world that we want to live in. To give that world any chance, we have to interrogate the bad things of the past. Only then can we judge how images and constructions, over time, are eroded and changed. Or not..."

Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company: Swan, High Wycombe (01494 512000), Tue; Lyceum, Sheffield (0114 249 6000), Fri & Sat; Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737), 15 to 19 June; Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141 331 9000), 22 & 23 June; Eden Court, Inverness (01463 234234), 25 & 26 June; Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0870 905 5060), 29 & 30 June

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