November 15, 2011 — The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company's third weeklong residency at the University of Virginia was filled with numerous opportunities for students and the public to see Jones at work and hear first hand how he translates ideas into performance.
And what ideas. About music and movement. Mortality and meaning. Learning. Leadership.
"To watch a great artist tackling big questions; watch him develop and change over time, we see what it means for the arts to lead the conversation," Elizabeth Hutton Turner, vice provost for the arts, said.
"When you go long and deep in conversation, it leaves a lasting imprint upon the creative culture of our community. The last two residencies with Bill T. Jones have resulted in the creation of new work as well as new levels of engagement with the creative process with faculty and students, and deepened relationships in the community. This is where we want to be as a University. We want to be fully engaged and empowered by the creative process and on the leading edge of the new knowledge that comes with the creation of new work."
"A Good Man"
Jones' residency was wide-ranging and touched many venues. On Nov. 6, the Virginia Film Festival screened "A Good Man" and "100 Migrations," produced by Kartemquin Films, which captured Jones over two years as he and his company crafted a theater-dance piece, "Fondly Do We Hope ... Fervently Do We Pray," in honor of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. "100 Migrations" is about a piece Jones created during his 2008 residency at U.Va., an exploration for the larger production.
The screening was combined with the Annual U.Va. Arts Assembly, which kicked off Jones' weeklong visit to Grounds. Speaking with Kartemquin filmmaker Gordon Quinn and local historian and adjunct faculty member Coy Barefoot, Jones said he approached Lincoln "as a series of ideas," asking "What does he have to say to us today?"
"I am not a historian. I am a poet," Jones told Barefoot. "And a poet is drawing on personal experience, and I thought the truest thing I could say about Lincoln was to represent an image of a community of people thinking about the ideas Lincoln represented." He noted that, as a child Lincoln was the only white man he was allowed to love.
The ideas Jones was referring to were "the Union at all cost," and "this proposition the country was founded on. Were they true 70 years before in the Revolutionary War and were they true now? ... They must be debated and fought for with every generation. Lincoln said that."
The three talked about tension both in history and art and how it was captured in "A Good Man." Quinn said tensions were evident as Jones and his colleagues worked through the process of creating the piece. "You start to have the moment of realizing, 'Oh, this is what conflict is. This is the dialectic that's taking us forward.'"
Of that tension, Jones said, "I think it is impossible for us to really penetrate the past. And it's impossible for us to really join or penetrate the future. That's where I thought the piece ended – with a question mark saying, you know, you will always want to know Mr. Lincoln and have him, but you know you really can't. You can only have your fantasies about him."
Quinn said Jones' work deals in ideas that don't always resolve like in a Hollywood movie, and "A Good Man" also follows that approach as it takes the film audience up to the moment of the first performance. "We want to often end our films in such a way that people don't necessarily walk away satisfied," he said.
Jones went on to describe himself as occupying a position between an "artiste engagé," which the French define as an artist committed to being in society and who brings awareness of social issues, and one who operates purely in the realm of form. He combines words, texts and movement to create works that are a blend of poetry and physics.
Describing a hypothetical situation in which he came to perform in Charlottesville in the 1950s, he asked, "Could I move or dance in a certain way that you could forget my being black? Would you be able to see past my skin color and see my heart and motivations in a certain way that says, 'When we cut do we not bleed?,'" as Shylock said in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice."
"And therefore, when you meet someone on the street that is different from you, would you actually have room for them. That is what art may be able to do – is to make us more gentle."
Jones' residency also included a screening of "Still/Here," a landmark 1993 dance-theater piece he created about mortality and the spirit of survival, and a Medical Center Hour discussion with health care workers, chaplains and the public. Third- and fourth-year medical student moderated the session.
The dancer was visibly moved by seeing the work he had created almost 20 years ago, said Marcia Childress, U.Va. associate professor of medical education and co-director of the program in humanities at the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities.
Childress said Jones asked the "Still/Here" workshop participants very difficult questions: "Who will receive you in death? Who will lay you down? Who will care? In the future, where are you and who will be there?"
One attendee commented that even in the hospital, in the intensive care unit those questions are not asked.
"It was a tremendous opportunity to hear from someone who works in a very different way with the body that spoke to the 'art' of medicine and nursing." Childress said.
Artist as Leader
Jones also sat down for an interview with Julian Bond, history professor in the College of Arts & Sciences and former national chairman of the NAACP. The interview is part of the University's oral history project, "Explorations in Black Leadership," a series co-directed by Bond and history professor Phyllis Leffler.
In her introduction Leffler described the series as a "link between the public and private and the personal and professional that charts the rich heritage of African-American leadership in this country." The talk with Jones explored the role of the artist as a leadership figure.
Jones shared stories about some of the defining events in his life in anecdotes and stories. At age 12, living in upstate New York, he saw the first "whites only" sign at a gas station, he said. His parents moved from the South to the North so Jones and his siblings could have all the opportunities of white kids. He attended an integrated school, although he was the only black child in his class. He and his classmates grew up together and shared many experiences as they approached the age of "sexual awakening." Jones said he was not allowed to take a classmate to the prom, because a father said, "We ain't racist but we cannot let this happen."
In high school Jones staged a school walkout over the issue of whether girls could wear pants to school.
"It did not take much to be a leader," he said.
Jones said his drama instructor influenced his talent. She talked with him about the pathos Martin Luther King Jr. called upon in his speeches. A West African and Caribbean dancer showed him "what a black body looked like and the many ways it could move and be embodying."
"He showed me how to see past popular culture," Jones said. The dance works of Merce Cunningham and the non-narrative experimental 1960s taught him "art is not a symbol of something else.
"All these things helped extend what I thought art should be," he said.
He took dance classes in college at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the 1970s. When he walked into his first class with "the acrid smell of sweat and the beat of the drums, I knew I was hooked."
He joined the avant-garde dance collective and its position that "dance is about ideas and the mastering of space."
When he and his partner Arnie Zane began dancing together and later formed their own company, Jones said they were "following a blueprint of the '60s: Anyone can be president. We are free at last."
About race and his work Jones said, "I am an artist first, then a black man."
The capstone of Jones' residency was the showing of the work-in-progress "Story/Time," which he and the company researched and rehearsed throughout their third U.Va. residency.
The piece reflects on the passage of time and our memory of it. Jones, along with Ted Coffey, professor in the College's McIntire Department of Music, composer and collaborator, and the dancers took questions from the audience, following the performance in Culbreth Theatre on Thursday. Jones said the piece is "primarily about time and where does meaning lie."
"Story/Time," inspired by artist and composer John Cage's 1958 work "Indeterminacy," solicited several questions from the audience. One wanted to know how 60 stories from the almost 140 Jones had compiled were chosen. Jones explained that the pieces are selected with the help of a website that generates random numbers. The dancers learn which ones they will perform shortly before they go on stage.
To a question about the amount of improvisation versus choreography, associate artistic director Janet Wong explained that they choreographed 60 shapes and other dancers ghost or use improvisation to fill all the negative space around those shapes. One dancer added that it is task-based, and they are also playing with time; how they relate to one another is up to the dancers.
The music is also task-based, said Coffey, adding that he has a menu of musical items that he has to make "cohere" in time but they are combined differently for each performance. Jones and Coffey are still exploring their working relationship. Of the evening's production Jones said, "The sound is a moving matrix of meaning. I think it was one of the most beautiful days we've done."
When asked if he kept a diary, Jones said not really but he had "a lot of stories that came from a life."
The residency culminated with a performance of the Civil War-inspired "Serenade/The Proposition" at the Paramount Theater on Friday evening. Jones, who stopped dancing five years ago, appeared in the performance as a narrator, reading excerpts from writers, including Lincoln.
The Charlottesville performance ended with a standing ovation by community members and University students as Jones bid everyone farewell.