BEGIN A CONVERSATION with Bill T. Jones and the threads of ideas from his past dances, his personal experiences and his ruminations on the current social discourse weave tightly into a provocative and challenging discussion on art, politics and, obliquely, the purposefulness of living in the moment.
The 53-year-old postmodernist dancemaker has a penchant for crafting dances of exquisite beauty that challenge onlookers to think as well as feel. His work is both unabashedly political and undeniably personal, culling from his own experiences as a gay, black, HIV-positive man, the 10th of 12 children of migrant farm workers. Jones helms the celebrated New York-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which he co-founded in 1982 with his artistic and life partner, Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS complications in 1988.
On Thursday, Jones continues a conversation he began with his 2000 solo performance piece, "The Breathing Show," an evening-length meditation on romanticism, racism, militarism and the ephemeralness of love and beauty. He titled this new Kennedy Center work "As I Was Saying . . ." because: "I felt like I was interrupted when I did ['The Breathing Show']. I dropped it, and now I've decided to go back to it."
Both witty and poignant, the new work reconfigures and reassesses a few older Jones works, including his 1983 talking solo, "21," now called "22." In the piece, faint filmed images flicker in the background as he moves through meaningful and simple gestural poses that explore the shifting contours of issues as varied as abuse, genocide, happy childhoods and spirituality.
In "With the Good Lord," Jones uses an obscure recording by Lord Buckley -- a 1950s bebop jazz-based performance artist -- to suggest antecedents to rap. Violinist Nurit Pacht joins Jones in "Chaconne," a 2003 solo that physically responds to Bach's evocative D Minor Partita for solo violin.
On Friday and Saturday, the company performs "Blind Date," a work seemingly invented for the self-centered politically charged environment of Washington. Jones has never been a choreographer to steer clear of hot-button issues. His 1990 "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" dealt forthrightly with ingrained racism in America; more recently Jones parsed Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Artificial Nigger," again staging an insightful query on whether race still matters in America.
"Blind Date" basks in the glow of partisan politics. "I asked myself, 'What are the issues that are of the most concern to me?' " Jones says. "And, of course, the climate just before the last election . . . came to be very angry, combative, with people taking sides. I had to take sides as well." The work speaks to the anti-intellectual, consumerist and fundamentalist trends that Jones says have usurped much of today's society.
"I am an artist who has an obsession about putting together works about the big questions. I choose to investigate through modern dance theory. People tell me that 'Blind Date' is very meaningful to them. I'm glad my work is about something.
"I don't know what art can do. That's not really my concern. My concern is what do I need to do," Jones says. "We often ask, 'What would you die for?' The more important question to ask is, 'What do you live for?' " Jones has found that answer in his art.
BILL T. JONES/ARNIE ZANE COMPANY -- "As I Was Saying . . . ," Thursday at 8. "Blind Date," Nov. 18 and 19 at 8. Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.