Bill T. Jones: Still Here

Barrington M.Salmon | 8/16/2012, 2:38 p.m.

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.