Bill T. Jones, who brought the avant-garde to Broadway
Friday, December 3, 2010; 11:37 AM
VALLEY COTTAGE, N.Y.- It was opening night for the hip-quaking Afrobeat musical "Fela!" at London's National Theatre, and for a few minutes during the feverish encore, the director and choreographer became its impromptu star. Elated by the standing ovation and the thunderous proof that he'd won success before a notoriously staid British public, Bill T. Jones - forever a showman - sprang onstage and danced half-naked with cast members young enough to be his children.
In that moment, one of the dance world's great contrarians was made whole, his contradictions reconciled: the collaborator and the exhibitionist, the orchestrator of spectacles and the soloist, the crowd-pleaser and the loner.
"That audience was up, and that audience was hot," Jones recalls. He's curled up on the sofa in his home in this small Rockland County town about an hour outside New York City. It's a comfy picture: He's in his socks; there are stacks of art books and tribal rugs on the floor. Windows offer views of a sloping Japanese-style garden, a fluid terrain of boulders, shrubs and long-legged sculptures by Jones' s partner, Bjorn Amelan, the set designer for Jones's modern-dance troupe, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. His home, in fact, feels like a set design, as if the rustic decor and tranquil landscaping have been composed to frame their owner, to make him "pop."
And he does: Against his quiet surroundings, Jones looks retro-flamboyant in his thick black glasses, navy cardigan and plaid slacks - in blood red. Barry Goldwater meets the drama club.
Those pants assure us there's still some outrageousness in him. After all, we're talking about the dancer known to flash a sequined codpiece under his miniskirt. (That was in "Last Night on Earth," Jones's indelible 1992 solo in which he sang, improvised and mimed vigorous sex acts.) He has courted controversy throughout his 30-some year career, as an outspoken choreographer who has put issues of race and homophobia up front and finds beauty in surprising places ("Last Supper in Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" showcased scores of naked Washingtonians). His works have drawn ire as well as praise. "Still/Here," which examined mortality and illness, was the subject of a laudatory Bill Moyers special on PBS; it was also denounced in the New Yorker and picketed by anti-gay activists.
At 58, Jones appears as lean and granite-muscled as ever. The only outward indicator of his age is the whisper of gray on his close-shaven head. But it's rare that this once-electrifying performer dances anymore. He let loose on that night in London two weeks ago "for the young people in the company who look at me as this older man who they work for, and they tremble in front of me - well, maybe they don't tremble, but I can be quite a monster," he says, his voice low and rolling, a mix of Nat King Cole, hot fudge and swallowed growls.
"At that moment I danced for them, I took my shirt off, all the things I only do when I feel very safe," Jones continues. "And it was an outpouring of love that just lifted me up. There were ladies pinching my [rear end]. I don't think they've ever had that at the National."
Oh yes, it's safe to say they've never had that at the National, house of Shakespeare - never seen anything like the explosive sensuality and blistering provocations that Jones funneled into "Fela!," plunging audiences into a two-hour dance party, fueled by the energy and loud, funky sound of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer, polygamist and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. It earned Jones this year's Tony Award for best choreography, to go with 2007's for "Spring Awakening," the rock musical about teen sexual tumult.
Jones's commercial success has been sudden, but not surprising. The depth of yearning he drew out of the young characters in "Spring Awakening" and the fierce pride and audacity that drive "Fela!" have their roots in the more than 100 works he has created for the dance company he founded in 1982 with his late partner Zane. From its beginnings, the troupe was diverse - Jones is black, and Zane, who died of complications from AIDS in 1988, was white. Inclusivity was an authentic quality for two gay men who were open to just about anything and anyone - one of their dancers weighed about 300 pounds. Jones's works show us the radiant beauty of the marginalized.
Combining dance, theater, text and multimedia, they look like none other: Consider the loopy vaudeville romp "A Quarreling Pair," based on a puppet play by Jane Bowles, and the wide-ranging meditation on Abraham Lincoln, "Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray," coming to the Kennedy Center Feb. 24-25.
But you can also view Jones as a misfit, a polarizing gadfly-and since when does the establishment celebrate gadflies? This moment-hallelujah! - feels like some kind of cultural shift, a reversal of the culture wars.
Jones views the Kennedy Center Honors - which places him alongside mass-market entertainers Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Merle Haggard and Jerry Herman- with some amusement. "It must be for my formalism, right?" he says, eyebrows spiking wickedly.