Now retired from the physical rigor and demands of being a dancer, renowned theater director, writer and choreographer Bill T. Jones continues to produce a varied, thought-provoking and staggering array of work.
In addition to being commissioned to create, he has in recent years tackled subjects from President Abraham Lincoln to Nigerian musician and political gadfly Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a musical he co-conceived, co-wrote, directed and choreographed.
This past Tuesday, Jones headlined the debut of his latest creation, Story/Time at Wolf Trap, an event performed one evening only in the Washington metropolitan area.
The piece he had originally intended to be performed in alternate spaces and museums for close friends only, morphed into something bigger.
The mini-tour of Story/Time will take the dance company to Europe, later this year, Jones said.
Jones has been described as many things, including artistic outsider, controversial, and iconoclast.
He laughed at the latter characterization in a recent interview.
"Iconoclastic means to break icons, break things. In a world where everything seems broken, that is a hollow job description," he said. "I have been very, very vulnerable in public. I have a sense of honor and outrage expressed. I believe in beauty, community, love, change. I'm coming out to you: I believe things will change."
As an artist, Jones said what's most important to him is maintaining the integrity of everything he produces. An earlier interview captures the essence of what informs his work.
"[To] take what you do and try to make something that may have value in the culture and not lose your pride doing it. That's one thing commercial theater is," he said. "Belief that an artist can be a popular artist and still be doing something that will hit people in all the proper places."
"... Many people think of me as an artist. I am at the bottom of it, a formal person. I live in a world of ideas [and] how and why you'll make the best work."
Jones said he is driven by a fear of disappointing his parents, his family, his lover and his companion, which may account for the fact that he has created almost 150 works for his Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and has been chosen to commission dances for a range of ballet companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Berlin Opera Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet and Boston Ballet.
While he has gained a reputation as a perfectionist and a stern taskmaster, Jones acknowledges that there are some things he cannot control. When asked if it mattered much what people say about his work, he was philosophical.
"It matters but I can't control it. It is a very important reality for every artist," he said. "Hollywood tries to do that with story, character, etcetera."
Art often bumps up against realities such as being commercially successful and this fact of life is one Jones said he jostles with with varying degrees of success. No artist can realistically ignore what he called "the business of art." The trade-off, Jones said, is the freedom that commercial success provides for him and his dance company to immerse themselves in the art. The business of art and the hunger of his young dancers are factors that push creativity, he added.
Jones said what he creates is informed by a need to be immersed in the creative process and is also rooted in a desire to share his unique artistic vision and reality.
While at a family reunion in Bunnell, Fla., in late July, Jones said he realized that many of his family members had never seen him perform and had likely only read about him in Jet, Ebony Magazine and other publications.
"It was a huge group. People were doing the Electric Slide, barbequing and taking part in a talent show – the runway version of Tyra Banks. Then I started wondering what am I going to do in this little community room in Bunnell," Jones said.
Jones said a cousin, Johnny Lee, began singing.
"He has an old-fashioned way of singing, makes you cry," said Jones of his cousin who performed in the '70s with Al Green and Wilson Pickett. "I took off my shoes and I was just dancing to his message and feeling. There were people there who'd never seen my work. The Spirit lifted me up. That was a sacred moment for me and my community of family. I think it was good for me and my family."
Jones, winner of two Tony awards and a 1994 MacArthur "Genius" Award, said the gathering served as a reminder of what's important.
"At the family reunion I want them to remember uncle as a guy who got down on the floor and showed position of feet, encouraged them to dance," he said. Jones said he has come to terms with aging and accepts the changes that come with it.
"I'm not ashamed to be aging, of being gay. My body is changing."
He laughed long and hard when asked about what makes him tick.
"A good dose of insanity," he said. "I have demons and I'm obsessed with failing my parents, lover, companion. And a good dose of love. As a small boy I would make a picture of someone with open arms. Ultimately, I want to love and have the space to love."
He acknowledged that despite his body of work and a frenetic schedule, he has not done this by himself.
"I sleep but for better or worse, my mind is always awake," he said. "Bjorn Amelan, my partner, made the omelette I'm eating while I talk to you," he said to a reporter, while laughing. "I have a sophisticated collaborator Janet Wong, who has been with me since 1995. She is a brilliant maker of movement and an honest, elegant woman."
Jones also singled out Jean Davison who he said "tussles over how we make the budget."
"You can't be Bill T. Jones all on your own."
But even someone as formidable as Bill T. Jones needs affirmation from time-to-time.
Which is what makes winning the MacArthur Award so pleasurable.
"I was in a rehearsal in Boston at the Majestic Theatre on a Saturday morning," Jones recalled. "A trustee called and said, 'don't say anything but you're getting a prize.' I thought it was a joke. I thought my work was controversial, not mature enough. I jumped up and down with my companion and we began thinking about ways to spend the money."
"It's a big time validation. That's probably the most important effect of the award."