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Our reporter sat down with Bill T. Jones on Monday—Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and a few hours before President Obama's second inauguration took place in the nation's capital—to talk about A Rite and reflect upon his career and times.
INDY WEEK: Could you give a quick description of A Rite?
BILL T. JONES: Those things are not a lot of fun. I'll do my best. It always sounds kind of confusing and maybe a little silly sometimes. Let's put it this way. The motor of the collaboration is evident in the stage picture at any one moment.
You have this quite varied community of people—different bodies, different shapes, different sizes and colors—that are all dressed differently. Sometimes there's at least a suggestion of a soldier here and there. Their dresses are quite lovely. They could be from the '20s or the '30s.
The movement has a distant relationship to what we consider archaic modern dance movement. You know, a lot of that that we associate with Martha Graham was probably born in her imagination on viewing The Rite of Spring. The movement can be quite athletic. A great deal of lifting and running, and big group patterns are important. The floor is used a lot, up and down to the floor.
There is a kind of subtle wink to the eyes of the connoisseur of The Rite of Spring, who knows the Joffrey Ballet's reconstruction, who knows certain motifs of the sacrificial virgin, and all that we have distributed liberally around our group. Imagine Leon, one of the actors from SITI Company. He must be the biggest guy on stage, a barrel-chested guy with a shock of red hair, and he is doing the shimmering movement of Nijinsky's sacrificial virgin.
We've had our way with the music, in terms of order. The very first music one hears in our show is the second half of the final "Dance of Death." So we've exploded the dramaturgy of Nijinsky and Roerich to suit our aims.
Anne [Bogart] has used the text of World War I soldiers. That's in the mouth of our "Walking Man," a conceit that I suggested. That we needed some human-scale personality in this giant historical landscape... actually is it a historical landscape of a contemporary take on a historical landscape that we're making?
We needed a person and I said it should be a walking man. And I wasn't sure he's walking where and from where. And with time we have found out more about him. He is a historical character but he very much walks into our time.
There's another soldier figure onstage that you assume they have a relationship even though the soldier is probably from somewhere in the 1960s military. And then there's even another historical figure who looks like a worker or air pilot maybe from today. The soldier adds kind of a thin spine to the proceedings; the other characters aren't as distinct. As I said, Anne created the Walking Man using liberally the text of World War I veterans.
And there is another character much beloved by myself and Anne, that is a contemporary physicist, talking about multiverses and entropy and concepts which, whether we like it or not, have become part of our consciousness.
The physicist picks up on Brian Greene's work?
Very much so. As a matter of fact I think we're even gently poking fun of Brian Greene. I like him a lot but he's erudite and casual. He's like the professor. Anyone who will listen, he will tell them. So that's three characters.
Oh, the musicologist—that's Severine Neff. I hope she's appreciated here as much as we appreciate her. She's become a great resource in this work but I think she's kind of a treasure in general. She just loves a certain brand of modern music. You have a very sophisticated music-going public here but if they had their druthers would they rather hear Beethoven, Debussy or Schoenberg? She loves Schoenberg and she knows her stuff. But there's something very approachable about her. Anne has recorded a lot of interviews with her and the language is taken verbatim, and our lead actress is brilliant. And I wouldn't call it an impersonation but she's created a lead character using Severine.
When Emil Kang at Carolina Performing Arts approached you about this commission, what was your conception of The Rite of Spring at that time, and how has it changed throughout the development of A Rite?
Emil quoted me the other night at the museum that I had said that I was terrified. That might be a little dramatic, but this happens to all choreographers at some point. They're faced with the question: Do you want to step into this fire? Because everybody feels at some point in their career that they have to deal with The Rite of Spring.
I've always thought 'Good for them. I don't need to do it. I'll do something else.' This is a wonderful opportunity. And when I understood that Anne was invited as well, and she and I had wanted to work together for years, and she proposed that we work together, it seemed like a no-brainer. Let's go for it. And maybe I can find another way past my prejudices.
Now, prejudices not about the work itself, but like I say, I felt it was kind of a trap to try to reinvestigate Nijinsky's and Roerich's libretto. It was that story. The music can stand up to all sorts of treatments—witness Walt Disney and Fantasia. But there was something about the libretto and the immense spectacle that it was in its time. It changed fashion and changed the whole idea of how a theatrical spectacle can unfurl.
So we felt, now we can do what we want to do. We can make a response. Emil even said, 'You don't have to use The Rite of Spring, but it should be about Stravinsky.' So it wasn't like he was twisting our arm. We could have used the Italian Suites, which I was just listening to today.
But then, when you start working with a theater company, and someone like Anne's intellectual mind and ambitions, you get sort of swept along. She's fearless and unjaded. Things excite her.
I'd like to ask you more about working with Anne. From the starting point, you both have a similar process. You both start with an opening question and then begin answering that question and follow that inquiry where it leads. But once you get into that, you have different ways of proceeding. Could you describe those differences and how those have fed back into A Rite?
I'll do my best because I'm still discovering those as well. What was it now, maybe 12 years ago? Anne has a yearly residence workshop at Saratoga. One year I happened to be there at the same time and I happened to find out about her great affinity and identification with modern dance, with contemporary dance.
She said to me just the other day that when she first started in New York she was actually in the spaces where contemporary dance was being done because she really eschewed the theater world. I don't remember her exact word but she found it stultifying or boring or hidebound or what-have-you, but that seemed to be really breathing in the possibilities of live performance.
One night in the gymnasium there, all the people in our program, which were probably 40 young dancers from around the country, and people from her program, which were probably the same number if not more, were all sitting in a giant circle and exchanging across the circle ideas. Which was very refreshing. It's almost like romance—you get to a certain point in your life and you never think you'll get to meet another person who quickens your heartbeat like that. And I felt like our two forms were discovering each other.
And both of us are, in our own way, maybe outliers. You know, we have our success but we also aren't placed anywhere. That seems to be one of our attractions as well.
Now, as for our methods. What she was saying was, as I understood it, she appreciated dance had a practice. I think she means how most dancers do class every day, just to warm up and train your instrument. Actors do training when they're in the conservatory but once they're working actors they don't train per se. They might take a special class here and there, but they don't go every day to a ballet class. Not that she wanted us to do ballet, but she loved the fact that we had a practice which was, in a way, a physicalized, embodied, daily ritual that honed the skills that we needed. Which is, I think, what the Suzuki method and the Viewpoints practice of her company are all about.
And Anne has people there, both Will and Ellen, I think, have been there since she formed her company over 20 years ago? I wish I could say that. Dancers just don't hang around that long. Ten years is a long time. Some of them are my friends and we stay in touch, but literally the body can't do it.
So I think those are the things that we have been discovering about each other. Now, there is a collaborative aspect to both of our works, true. I ask people to contribute a great deal, like she does. But I feel a bit more like a coach or maybe a not-always-so-pleasant guy driving things. And Anne is strong but I never feel her anxious. I never feel like she's on fire or yelling at anybody. And I sometimes lose my temper and that sort of thing. That makes for a different working environment. Is it a male/female thing or just two personalities?
I feel like I am ultimately responsible. I don't know if she feels that. Constantly she is giving agency to the group. I give agency to the group particularly through my associate director Janet Wong, who's actually going to have the same billing as Anne and I do in this work because I was not able to be there in the first month or so of the work, and Janet got it started. And, at least for the first act, she laid out the bone structure of it and I came into that. And those ideas in the first act are now being referenced in the second act. So that's Janet Wong, who is extremely capable and organized but also has learned something from our company's way of working, asking the dancers for their input.
I saw the American Masters film Bill T. Jones: A Good Man, which is about the creation of Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray, a 2009 dance-theater piece concerned with Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. I couldn't stop thinking about how you and your company work in the studio. And of course there were fireworks in the film and it was very dramatic. But the more I thought about it—and you used the word 'coach' to describe yourself a moment ago—you were almost training your dancers to do something that had nothing to do with dance. There was a conceptual structure on top of simply getting a performance together.
A philosophy maybe?
It seems something else to me. I think 'approach' is good. In a way, the performance that you were making was a means, not an end. 'As a result of making this, you will be able to do this, or be this.'
That's pretty astute and, god help us, I hope that someone is able to do justice to it because I'm too close to it. I'll just point to some strains. There is, of course, the history of how I started dancing.
It was the American Dance Asylum, which was us Young Turks in the early 1970s, working and trying to find a way to work communally. And not that we had a beleaguered, fist-up attitude—that I brought myself, that comes with descriptions of my personality and my African-American, post-civil rights take on things, and being a gay man, and so on. Liberation through 'If you don't stand up for something, you'll get trampled under the heels of the body politic.' That was Bill.
But then there's something about the American Dance Asylum, which I cut my teeth in. A place where you could be absolutely free, take refuge, or you could be as crazy as you like. And that was a worldview. We lived communally. We lived in a very impoverished kind of community, and we were doing works that nobody knew what the devil we were doing. And they hated us and yet we had to stand for something.
There was a thin line between an aesthetic choice and a lifestyle choice. You are what you do. And we are the remnants of the counterculture. And the counterculture stood for what? Well, you name it. We're still trying to figure it out now. Was it Jimi Hendrix shouting 'I'm gonna raise my freak flag high?' Freaks, we were freaks. You see what I'm getting at: It's a worldview.
It is a privilege to go into a studio every day and make something—what is that about? It is a spiritual activity.
I think that's what you're getting at because it's about whether you're giving all of yourself to it. Really giving all of yourself. How brave are you? You can have as much freedom as you're willing to fight for. And if I turn up the heat, you can have as much freedom as you're willing to die for. And what we're doing in modern art is we're testing the boundaries of individual freedom and agency.
What are you doing this moment? Are we thinking? Are we asking the right questions? Are we rigorous enough? And that's me talking to me, actually. But—and I usually say this to the dancers, but we're in a collaborative situation—the materials are the individuals in the room, and they are sublime materials. Those materials are thinking, feeling creatures with destinies and ideas. That's one branch.
The other one is a woman named Freda Rosen, from a wild, Trotskyite believe-it-or-not social therapeutic community—very controversial. But she saved me at a time when Arnie Zane and I were dealing with really deep issues in our relationship, issues of trust and accountability and intimacy.
She would say things like "We don't do simple psychotherapy here. This is not a story about your mother or your father. We make 'changers' here. You change, and you become a changer." And, as I said, there was quite a controversial desire to reconfigure the world as you reconfigured yourself. Honestly, yeah. A white man and a black man having problems in a relationship is not just because they are a couple, but because they are literally the points where society pressures come from the public to the personal.
And there are reasons, Bill, why you have anxieties around money, and Arnie, why you have anxieties around Bill. You're both trying to be intimate and loving in a racist, homophobic... need I go on? You are of the society and you are trying to lead these exceptional lives as artists outside the society. So therefore everything you do is about this change and this pressure to push back. Heavy lifting for a dance studio.
You said something potent Thursday night, as an aside. You said, "Art is about pushing against something."
"Art happens when something is being pushed against." Which is actually, I believe, Keats. Because it was said to me, around Still/Here. A man walked up to me and he said that it was such a difficult work to observe, and he knew it was difficult to make, and he said, "Keats said, 'Art happens when something is being pushed against.'" He might even have said "pushed down."
So many of your pieces have an arc to them but you aren't preoccupied with resolution. One of my favorite pieces of yours is "Floating the Tongue" from The Breathing Show, in which you do a short solo, and then you repeat the solo while describing exactly what movements you are making, and then you dance the solo a third time while saying exactly what you are thinking with each movement. It's so instructive about how to make work, but also spiritually instructive.
You know it's the closest and most pure thing I can do except it does not fit tidily into having a dance company and into the business of dance. It was an avenue of investigation that's very much about the individual doing it. And that individual... you can't give that to everybody. In the last 20, 30 years of the company—that piece was probably conceived in 1981—there have been maybe two or three people who have successfully been able to perform it. And that's a lot of dancers.
I can't imagine anyone else performing that.
Well, because a person has to have the questions that Bill has, I suppose. Or even... I don't know. This leaves me open to the question: What is the technique behind it? There's been a struggle in my soul for the essentialist, expressionistic human being to cope with the grand tradition of Western making, and maybe making in general. Everything has to, well, Anne says everything has to have three parts.
First, you have to have something to say. Then you have to have an idea of how to say it. And the third one is technique. What's the technique of it?
I've given people what the problem is, and these are the skills you need. Now go develop them. Talk to yourself on the subway. Watch yourself watching, because in that piece there's one movement and you're supposed to be doing the movement and then describing what's going on in that moment in the room. So, how do you practice that?
And while you're brushing your teeth in the morning, or taking a shower, describe every little movement that you're doing. Do you have the vocabulary, the conceptual reach to compress an action—and we know that at any one moment an action is comprised of thousands of little sub-actions—which ones are you going to pull out?
You have to have something of a fiction writer, something of a scientist, something of a poet. Compress that. And now you've got to keep moving, as well. Do you have the facility and the stamina for that? Who wants that problem, and to what end? To reveal your psyche. That's what I thought modern dance promised, with the avant garde.
It was not about a spectacle designed for Memorial Hall. It was about a group of people sitting in a very intimate relationship to each other and focusing on what happens to a person over time as they try to undertake a problem like that. That was "Floating the Tongue," which came from a Buddhist meditation exercise that was taught to me by a meditation teacher in the 1970s. And he called it "Floating the Tongue."
Are you continuing to create solo work through all the different kinds of work you do now?
Not nearly, no. I do once in a while. I like to say now, glibly, that I dance now when I'm happy. When I'm very happy. And that usually happens in my living room when my companion is cooking and music is on that I love, or at a party with friends, or maybe at a performance if we just had a wonderful run in a place like Naples or Paris and I feel particularly generous, I will do an impromptu solo. And they go under the title—someday I'll collect them—it's called "That Sweet Impediment to Greatness."
Now, why that? Because as good as it feels to Bill, they are ephemeral. It's a great pleasure to speak to you about this because you remember these things, but these things are like throwaways and they melt. Now, it can't be great if, first, they're made spontaneously and, next, not designed to last. But in a guilty way I indulge in them and I call it "The Sweet Impediment to Greatness."
I love dancing to Al Green. Have you seen online?
I haven't, but I soon will.
For Obama's first inauguration Toni Morrison asked me to do a benefit in our community, so I danced a solo to "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart" by Al Green. And that is "That Sweet Impediment to Greatness." It was for that moment, and it was pulled together. And some nice dancing in it.
That's a great moment. And we have that moment again today. What does the second inauguration, and today being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, mean to you?
That's a fair question, on this day. I am confused. I am confused that he is being re-inaugurated on this day.
First of all it is difficult to make the day pop for me. It would be easier if I wasn't here working. It's my day off. Did I wake up thinking "This is Martin Luther King Day"—no. I woke up thinking this was a day off and Rite of Spring, Rite of Spring, Rite of Spring, and I have interviews, and oh, this is Martin Luther King Day, and Mr. Obama, whom you have really given a great deal to... Why am I cool [toward him]?
Something is hurting. Something is sad. And anything I say sounds like I am beating up on the man who has become a symbol that I need and I would defend his back no matter what. But maybe it's a realization of the dreams we have—"I have a dream!" that's one thing—but you better live fast and die young, right?
Heaven forbid you have a dream and you have to jump into the shit. And try to make something in an intractable situation. Martin Luther King now belongs to—what happened to Lincoln?—he belonged to the angels and he belonged to the ages, depending on who you listen to, right? Martin Luther King now belongs both to the angels and the ages, and his accomplishments.
Mr. Obama is very alive right now. Why doesn't he behave like an icon? Why doesn't he wave his magic wand and stand for change? Well, it doesn't happen. And is that a middle-aged man talking to you right now, about having realized finally, maybe, I can't just will it and the world will change? There is mud up to our waist. And why were you so arrogant as a young person to think it was any different for you and your era? Maybe that's what's hurting right now, on this day.
Well, you can always make new work and push at the mud, right?
Oh, you think that's what the work does? I'm not sure. That's the other thing. When we were going to make The Rite of Spring, and we were talking about Nijinsky and Roerich's sacrificial maiden, I said, before we even started the work, what's the news there for me?
The news is not about young tragedy but about the realization of aging, and the diminishing returns and cynicism. You know, April is the cruelest month, breaking up. Well, late summer is pretty cruel too, when you know the winter is coming.