Bill T. Jones, who brought the avant-garde to Broadway

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

He'll claim it for individualists everywhere. In pursuing an idiosyncratic path in a white middle-class art form, Jones has often been a loner. In his long career as a choreographer of the avant garde, he has never shied from weaving in the most intimate aspects of his personal story.

It was the deeply personal quality of his art, in fact, that led to him to the spotlight on Broadway and in London's National Theatre. Jones's understanding of "the role of art in society, art in politics, and being a black man in society" made him perfect for "Fela!," says producer Stephen Hendel, who landed Jones after seeing his company perform with a wild garage band. "Bill had the wiring to tell the story in a way that would be truthful, through movement . . . to bring out the force of the music."

Stepping out

The wiring was hard won. Born in Florida, Jones was the tenth of 12 children raised by migrant farmworkers. Earliest memory: a "phosphorescent-green snake" winding its way down a tree toward him as his sisters fixed him breakfast somewhere in South Carolina. Natural beauty and communal labor formed him. So did realities of race and class. His father, who could command the attention of any barroom, would physically transform himself when he encountered white men, avoiding eye contact and muttering "yes suh."

Jones mimes the posture, then lifts his head. "I'll be damned if I'll ever drop my eyes to anyone," he says evenly.

In 1970 he entered the State University of New York at Binghamton as a sprinter, but he left a dancer, having fallen in love with Zane and with dance. Eventually the pair moved to Manhattan, where they fell in with the austere experimental wing of modern dance. To do anything "popular" was to sell out.

But Jones, unlike most of his downtown colleagues, was too extroverted, too much of a people person to be entirely indifferent to his audience. Particularly in his own uninhibited and overtly sensuous dancing, he enjoyed playing to the public, as much as he might push into uncomfortable territory.

Back in the 1980s, he says, "Arnie and I were saying what was truly transgressive was to take our values intact into the mainstream." They kissed during curtain calls. One memorable evening in the early 1990s at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, the company's male dancers gyrated stark naked at the footlights, forming a chorus line of merry jiggling.

He can also raise eyebrows off the stage. In 2000, Jones walked away from a lucrative engagement at the Spoleto Festival USA to join the NAACP's protest of the Confederate flag at the Charleston, S.C., statehouse. Jones blasted the state's "troubling acquiescence to an historic symbol with brutal associations hurtful to many."

Jones "speaks out more than any other choreographer," says Leah Cox, a longtime company member. "I think it's part of what has made him somewhat of an outsider and a misfit. Much as he might wish it otherwise . . . he makes people a little bit on edge, because they know he's going to push and he's not going to remain quiet if he finds something suspicious."

He has at times frustrated the core of the dance world. In 1994, in an infamous six-page diatribe in the New Yorker, dance critic Arlene Croce proclaimed her refusal to see "Still/Here" because it was, as she termed it, "victim art . . . deadly in its power over the human conscience."

"Still/Here," which included videotaped interviews with the terminally ill, was an audience success, and roundly hailed by critics. But Croce's piece felt like "almost soul death," says Jones. It was also bewildering: "The thing that really unites all mankind is the fact that we're born, we grow and then we die. That's age-old. Shakespeare talked about that, and Euripides. So how did that turn into identity politics?"

Broadway has brought him a whole new public. First lady Michelle Obama attended "Fela!" in New York last month. In January, the National Theatre will beam live broadcasts of "Fela!" around the world; Washington's Sidney Harman Hall will screen it Jan. 17.

Meanwhile, Jones is breaking new ground in the dance world by merging his company with New York's Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) a presenting organization - meaning it hosts performances and covers some of the artists' costs - that owns its own building in Chelsea. Jones's company will pay off most of DTW's $3 million debt.

The new nonprofit that the two organizations will form, pending approval in January by the New York State attorney general, will be called New York Live Arts. Jones's company, which like most dance troupes has had to rely on rented rehearsal space, will be headquartered in the building. It will perform small-scale works in the 200-seat theater every other year, and Jones will also serve as executive artistic director of the new entity, which will continue to present work, with his input.

"I want to feel the energy I felt at the National Theatre," says Jones. "They have their 'Hamlets' and obscure Scottish plays but there's also room for puppets and live music and lots of things." The new organization has "got to understand the world is changing and we can't sit by smugly and feel superior to pop culture. We have to go in there and participate."

His idea reflects a bit of a quarrel he has with the modern dance world.

"Modern dance," Jones says, drawing the words out with flourish, "it has made me what I am today." He chuckles aridly, gazes out at the garden with its bushes glowing gold in the morning light.

"I've had an on-again, off-again love affair with it over the years," he says of the dance field. "Part of it is, I no longer want to be in the cool club, thumbing my nose at the bourgeoisie."

He has tired of postmodern aloofness. Broadway "is where the edge was, where the power was, for me, and where the satisfaction was.

"Now, you pay for that satisfaction," he continues. Especially galling: glad-handing for publicity with those who know nothing of his dance company.

"It's, 'Now you've arrived because you won a Tony.' When that assumption is in the air, wait a minute, hold it, whoa, whoa, whoa." With a sweep of his arm, Jones holds off an imaginary entertainment press. "I come from a world that was taught that Broadway was actually the death of creativity."

He pauses, considers the tea Amelan has discreetly set before him. "But then it sounds like I'm biting the new hand that's being offered to me."

And by all appearances, that hand is wide open. Jones is in discussions about directing and choreographing another Broadway project, planned for 2013. He'll only divulge that it's based on a movie from the 1970s with soundtrack by an African American. "It's going to raise a lot of eyebrows," he says.

It's bound to. Busting us out of our comfort zones is Jones's specialty. And heck, in this new stage of his artistic life, he's even challenging his own assumptions.

"When I first started out, it was, 'if it's for a lot of people it can't be good,' " says Jones. "I'm in another place now. I'm living in parallel universes."

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