NEW YORK — Bill T. Jones walks into his office, and the room seems to shrink.
It’s not just that his tall, broad-shouldered frame gains a few inches from the black wool beanie that stands upright, no hint of slouch, atop his clean-shaven head.
At 67, Jones inhabits this space the way he commanded the stage in his dancing years. He has a radiating presence that’s both large-scale and contained.
Granted, his office isn’t that big to begin with, on the garret-like top floor of the performance space and experimental dance haven New York Live Arts, which Jones directs.
Strange as it may seem, the singularly magnetic performer and two-time Tony-winning choreographer (for “Fela!” and “Spring Awakening”) has a desk job. At least some of the time, when he’s not researching a new piece or in the studio with his world-traveled group, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. It’s an unusual mix of roles. There’s little precedent in dance or theater for a nonprofit arts incubator to be led by an artist of Jones’s stature.
A man of hearty appetites — for courting controversy, for expansive productions, for off-the-radar music and free expression of many sorts — Jones is a crusader for independent artists because (a) he’s one of them, and (b) he’s irrepressible.
Sitting on a sofa in his Live Arts office, in the West Side neighborhood of Chelsea, Jones leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. Because there’s not quite enough legroom before he hits the coffee table, his limbs are spread wide, in a casual demonstration of hip flexibility only a dancer could manage. He’s wearing a scarf, a fuzzy cardigan, a bright yellow T-shirt and corduroys. Together with the hat, which stays on for most of the interview, it’s a free-spirited look, with a dash of edge. This man, who was once body-painted by Keith Haring (the sensational photographs landed in museum collections), can pull it off.
He speaks with the no-nonsense bluntness of a motivational coach.
“I want to talk about what it means to survive,” Jones says in an emphatic baritone, “and what a life is.”
Jones knows more than a little about survival. His partner, Arnie Zane, died in his arms of AIDS-related causes in 1988. In his grief, Jones vowed not to give up on the dance company they had founded six years earlier, which he calls “the child Arnie and I had together.”
He didn’t give up. Through works such as “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,” which called racism out of hiding, and “Still/Here,” using interviews with those facing death, Jones continuously boosted a well-earned reputation for tackling the societal land mines even the most “woke” conversations tiptoe around.
Stories of survival course through Jones’s newest work, “Analogy Trilogy,” created with his associate artistic director, Janet Wong, which the company will perform at the Kennedy Center next week. Each night audiences will see one of three 75-minute sections; they tell different stories but share similar features. They all have spare, movable design elements (created by Bjorn Amelan, Jones’s longtime artistic collaborator and husband), and the dancers speak and sing, as well as move, in Jones’s smooth, slippery, boldly sculpted style. The three parts premiered between 2015 and 2017; this is the trilogy’s first outing for Washington audiences.
The opening section, “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” centers on the tales unspooled over dinner and wine several years ago by Jones’s mother-in-law, who was a French Jewish nurse during the Holocaust and helped other Jews get false papers and escape.
The closer, “Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant,” is based on a character in German author W.G. Sebald’s celebrated novel “The Emigrants.” Ambros is a complicated, enigmatic figure, possibly gay, who travels through Europe in the early 1900s with a wealthy male companion and ends up in a sanatorium in Upstate New York, willingly undergoing electroshock therapy in an act of self-destruction.
But Jones didn’t want a whole production about Europeans and the world wars, so he added a middle section, “Analogy/Lance: Pretty a.k.a. the Escape Artist,” about his nephew, Lance Briggs.
Briggs was once a San Francisco Ballet scholarship student. He was the dancing body double for James Earl Jones in a Verizon ad some years ago. But his life spiraled into addiction and prostitution. At one point, Briggs, in his 50s, was in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down and needing surgery. Doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of survival.
Jones got on the phone, in life-coach mode, urging him: Lance, don’t just lie there! You’ve always wanted to write songs. Write one! Do something.
“I was trying to talk to him as an artist to another artist,” Jones says. “I’d say, ‘An artist has to make. An artist has to do. Why don’t you write a song about what’s going on, rather than panic?’ ”
But what it took to extract that song! “It was like pulling teeth,” Uncle Bill murmurs, “to get him to do this thing.”
In time, Briggs did come up with a song. He sang it into the phone. Jones recorded it (he’d been taping their weekly phone conversations for years) and gave it to his collaborator Nick Hallett, who composed music for “Analogy Trilogy.” Hallet scored it. Jones then stage-managed his nephew’s surgery, arranging for the song to be played as Briggs went under the knife.
“I wanted him to hear it under the anesthesia, so in case he were to pass away, he’d hear it in his unconsciousness,” Jones says.
Briggs, thusly badgered (lovingly) back to life by an inexorable force, turned out okay. He’s living in Florida with his mother, working on more music. Jones, who’s equally demanding of himself, plowed the experience into “Analogy/Lance.”
“I wanted to make a piece about a man who saves himself through art,” he says. “I don’t want people to think he’s just a train wreck. The most important thing an artist has is the will to do something — it’s evidence of life and a spiritual wellness, even if the body is decrepit.”
Jones’s questioning — his openhearted wonderment about these people — runs through each part of “Analogy Trilogy.”
Dora, for instance, lost her family to the Nazis. She nearly died of typhoid; she wrestled with guilt over the Jews she couldn’t save. And yet she has no bitterness.
Jones finds her fascinating. (She’s now 98, living in a senior facility in Paris.)
“She’s a calm, organized, loving human being who is intelligent and curious,” he says. “She would tell me terrible things that would happen. But then she would tell me some instance of great kindness between people.
“And as a black person, dealing with what was going on with Ferguson [Missouri], dealing with the open wound that is slavery and all, I was thinking, ‘There's something I could learn from her.’ ”
As for “Analogy/Ambros,” Jones says he relates mostly to the author, Sebald, digging up information about his character, who is more or less based on a real-life great uncle Sebald never knew. In “The Emigrants,” Sebald describes studying his great uncle’s journals and interviewing those close to him, drawing out the type of oral history that Jones also has used in his own work, as a creative strategy. Telling other people’s stories, Jones says, forces him to deal with “the crushing reality of time passing.”
“Artists have to present a portrait of a moment that by its nature is ephemeral,” he says.
That’s where the optimism of his nephew touched him. At one point, Briggs told his uncle, “I want to make something that’s going to be of service to young gay people who are going through what I went through.” That stuck with Jones, and we hear one of the performers speak those words.
“At the time I wasn’t sure art could be of use to people,” Jones says. “This is me reflecting on my belief system.”
And now, does he believe art can save people?
Jones doesn’t lack for candor.
“I’m not sure if the kind of art where you have to go to a theater is going to save your life,” he says. “But in this Black Lives Matter, hashtag-MeToo, TimesUp moment, people are trying to make statements that they say will save peoples’ lives by raising consciousness.”
He turns the question around. “Do you think the work that you see, by people who have traditionally been outcasts, who put their catharsis onstage — does that give you direction and catharsis?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer; he has one ready: “I don’t know.”
“All I know is I’m trying to present a vision of a community of people that’s disparate ethnically, physically and socially,” he continues, “and they are all working together in my company. I’m working at a fractious time with a fractious identity, and yet I keep this thing going forward.
“On bad days, it’s a habit and it’s vanity. On good days, I’m adding my voice to a great and positive conversation that says, ‘We shall overcome.’ ”
Overcoming — that, he says, is the subject of his next piece, the one he’s working on now, although it doesn’t have a name yet.
Jones is in a good place, cozy office and all. His company has a permanent home at Live Arts. No more renting rehearsal spaces all over town. And if Jones needs inspiration, or the sustenance that only wide-eyed youth can offer, all he has to do is go downstairs and sit in the back of the theater and watch the artists who, through stipends, residencies and mentoring, he’s helping to cultivate.
“It’s fun for me,” he says, sitting back and nestling into the sofa cushions. “It’s exciting when you sit in the theater and see something that is off the wall. It’s not even important if I like it — it’s exciting. This is what New York should be.
“This is what American arts are supposed to be. People taking chances.”
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company March 28-30 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.