Sometimes Bill T. Jones is tempted to plead temporary insanity. When the dramatic contrasts in his life seem overwhelming, the dancer/choreographer experiences "manic moments" like the "tight, hot flashes" that occurred when he was driving into Washington to prepare for his Kennedy Center debut tonight.
"I thought, here I am, the ninth of 12 children, the son of migrant farm workers who were poorer than poor . . . one of two black families in a town of 10,000 -- on my way to the Kennedy Center to perform. I've just come back from Rumania, and after this perfomance I'll be going to Stockholm.
"Yet my mother and father are living in poverty, and I'm one step ahead of poverty at all times. But I'm one of the first in my family to even travel abroad -- let alone go on a European tour -- and I'm making it artistically.
"Dance is the thing," he sighs in a rich, gentle baritone, "that separates me from insanity."
At 28, Jones is more than making it in the competitive dance world. His eclectic mix of ballet, modern, contact improvisation and African dance has won him several appointments as artist-in-residence and a choreography fellowship -- plus raves from New York critics. Dance magazine calls his work "moving and exhilarating" with "an intensity of performing style and an energy which he keeps up in a flurry of movement."
This electric energy is apparent even in repose. His broad face glows, his strong hands move constantly when he speaks about dance. Stretched out in worn tan slacks, a faded blue jersey and cloth slippers, he seems to be making a concentrated effort to keep his imposing, muscular body still.
So he lets his voice dance for him, and his precisely articulated speech (which won him oratory awards in high school) builds to crescendo, then drops with stunning effect. When words fail him -- and they rarely do -- he leaps to his feet and moves through subtly complex gestures that perfectly illustrate his thoughts.
"Something happened in me chemically that hooked me on performance," he says, describing the event that propelled him into dance. "It was during a high school production of 'The Music Man.'
"I played Marcellus [Professor Harold Hill's sidekick] and had been told to improvise my dance until a choreographer was called in. I didn't even know what a choreographer was. Opening night came, and no choreographer. So I threw in every step I'd ever seen in a movie, and I stopped the show." s
He went on to study Afro-Caribbean and West African dance at the State University of New York at Binghamton, jazz ballet in Amsterdam and contact improvisation in San Francisco Currently living in Blauvelt, N.Y., Jones works there with dancer/choreographer Arnie Zane, who will appear with him at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday. Both dancers and founders of the American Dance Asylum, a collective dance center in New York.
Not surprisingly for someone who describes his life as one of "extreme contrasts, struggle and confusion," Jones has chosen the title "Sisyphus" for the solo work he will premiere tonight as part of the Washington Performing Arts Society and Kennedy Center's Dance America series.
But unlike the Corinthian king doomed forever in Hades to roll a heavy stone uphill and always have it roll down again, Jones' autobiographical work allows for some progress in reaching his goal.
"It's as much the story of Sisyphus as James Joyce's 'Ulysses' is the story of Ulysses," Jones says. "It's a struggle but it's not futile. It's like a spiral, going in gradual circles to the top.
"I'm constantly trying to balance the varied forces in my background and my life. I used to try to do that through religion and yoga -- but that was pulling away from life.
"Now I'm trying to embrace this whole big rollicking monster of a world through dance, my art."