Giving Form to Ideas: Bill T. Jones Bridges the Arts During U.Va. Residency

April 29, 2011

April 29, 2011 — Sharing the creative process and bridging artistic disciplines were the main thrusts of a weeklong residency at the University of Virginia by director and choreographer Bill T. Jones and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company,  held April 18 to 22.

Always on a quest for new meaning in art and ways to give form to ideas, Jones said he likes visiting the University. "U.Va. has the same religion I have: belief in art and culture. And, they believe in their students," he said.

During the visit – the second of a three-part residency – the company taught four classes in the Drama Department's dance program, and Janet Wong, associate artistic director of the dance company, taught a master class in modern technique for students and community members.

The week was filled with formal and informal interactions with students across the arts, sharing ideas and process.

Courtney Nelson, a third-year engineering science and physics major and dance minor, attended Wong's master class and a class in dance composition taught by Paul Matteson, a member of the company since 2008. Nelson said she appreciated the opportunity for a "wider exposure to what is out there and a chance to have an outsider's point of view and to see what they bring to the dance floor."

Matteson led trios of students in choreographing individual phrases and combined them to build a collaborative dance piece in just an hour.

"It was a very fast-paced class," said Chenay Newton, a third-year double major in American studies and African-American and African Studies and a dance minor. The exercise introduced her to "methods and activities that were new," she said. 

Newton built on her participation in the 2008 Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company U.Va. residency, in which they collaborated with students and community members to create "100 Migrations," a site-specific event that explored the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

"The company members are so open and informative. It is experiences like these that inspire me to strengthen my craft and also deepen my love for dance," she said.

A highlight of the visit for Nelson was a chance to work behind the scenes with the company during their research for a new work, tentatively titled "Story/Time," in which Jones' inventive choreography will accompany a selection of short stories drawn from his life. The work is inspired by avant-garde artist John Cage's "Indeterminacy," a performance piece wherein Cage read 90 short stories over 90 minutes while an accompanying musical score was performed at chance intervals. Ted Coffey, associate professor of music in the College of Arts & Sciences and an expert in electronic and mixed composition and experimental aesthetics and sound design, is collaborating on the project.

The dancers learned of the sequence of their dance pieces just 20 minutes before the rehearsal.

"To see a company of such notable fame in an informal setting and see the inner workings – it was awesome," Nelson said.

After one rehearsal, Jones met with students in Architecture School lecturer George Sampson's arts administration class. The students had just seen a short film about the making of "100 Migrations" by Kartemquin Films and the conversation centered on community building through the arts and the power of art to change a community's thinking about an idea.

Jones shared his own experiences with his productions such as "Still/Here," which deals with death and mortality, and "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," about racism, repression, faith and sexual freedom.

Jones said that organizations that presented the works in their communities told him "they appreciate these works because they change the way we look and think about art."

In a recorded interview with U.Va. Vice Provost for the Arts Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Jones talked about his early artistic influences as a student at the State University of New York/Binghamton. Although a ballet and dance major, he said he found inspiration in the art and cinema departments and exposure to visiting avant-garde artists.

In that tradition, Jones participated in discussions with drama associate professor Marianne Kubick's movement class about their craft and the challenges of being an artist in the real world.

Jones also interacted with students in studio design reviews in the School of Architecture and with fourth-year Distinguished Majors Program and Fifth-Year Aunspaugh Fellows thesis reviews in the McIntire Department of Art.

Amelia Einbeinder-Lieber is a first-year architecture graduate student in professor Peter Waldman's studio. The semester-long assigned project is to design a culinary institute for an urban site. Einbeinder-Lieber said she appreciated having a "different voice in the mix besides the architecture professors and visiting architects" who are usually invited to critique student work.

"Jones talked about the experiential parts of our design and what it feels like to be in the space," she said. "He also challenged us to think of the many different people who might be using the space." she said.

With architecture professor Michael Beaman's students, Jones spoke about how to direct the movement of people through space as he learned about their designs of auditoriums and research facilities for an island in the Potomac River owned by the Smithsonian Institution. Part public buildings, part park and part work-oriented spaces, the project presents challenges of integrating the various functions while also keeping them separate. "Pathways," "circulation" and "destinations" were words that came up again and again.

"Architecture is a kind of harnessed aesthetic," Jones said. What he took away from the discussion was how architects think about "a building expanding in the mind of the polis of the city. It has the capacity to direct one's thinking because of what goes on in there. It's a visual language that calls out and directs us."

Interacting with students and discussing their architectural process may help Jones as he thinks about how to animate New York Live Arts, a new model of arts organization founded in 2010 by a merger of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and the Dance Theater Workshop that the New York Times said could "alter the contemporary dance landscape in New York."

Artist Emily Corazon Nelson, a Fifth-year Aunspaugh Fellow whose end-of-year exhibit "and act calmly" challenges viewers to "more deeply consider the implications of our connectedness on this shared planet" and questions our response to and safety in a world of natural disasters, expressed wonder at Jones' critique of her work.

"It was incredible to have an artist of a different discipline who has not previously seen my work comment on the show," she said. "He clearly and immediately understood my stance on the political issues inherent in my work: That I am both critiquing our world, but am also within the world – and that I find the world truly beautiful."

Nelson, who will spend the next two years in New Orleans with Teach for America, said, "I want to teach in my art – not in an overly didactic way, but in an open-ended, let's-reconsider-the-world-from-a-new-perspective kind of way. I think Mr. Jones immediately understood that desire on my part, and his critique was directed toward how I could best do that, how I could best engage people."
Engaging people and ideas through art is Jones' forte. He and the company will return in November for the third part of their residency, to continue sharing ideas and processes with students and to perform the classic Jones work, "D-Man in the Waters," a celebration of life and the resiliency of human spirit.

— By Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations