Exclusive: Bill T. Jones Talks Dance

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Bill T. Jones is a mover and a shaker. He’s one of the most widely recognized dancers and choreographers working today, as well as the artistic director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Performing and creating dance and theater works for more than 30 years, Jones is celebrated for his hybrid mix of movement, drama, and staging. An educator who has taught nearly as long as he’s performed, Jones is one of the nine mentors — along with Placido Domingo, Frank Gehry, Julian Schnabel, Liv Ullmann, and others — taking part in HBO’s Masterclass. We recently spoke to Jones about mentoring and his creative process, and he had lots to share.

Bill T. Jones, Photo: Kevin Fitzsimmons, Courtesy of Wexner Center for the Arts

Flavorpill: Do young artists need mentors?

Bill T. Jones: Well, I’ve gone round and round on this question. I hope it isn’t a dodge, but I think that the action of conversation across generations is very important to the artistic process, the artistic health of a culture. I think that there’s a conversation that should happen across generations.

FP: Did you have a mentor?

BTJ: I had some wonderful teachers. A mentor is something that we did in Masterclass, which meant someone sits down and gives you his full attention. That didn’t really happen for me. I had the privilege of watching older artists work, but I didn’t have the benefit of anyone sitting and advising me.

I remember once walking up to the great Daniel Nagrin at a cocktail party to ask him for advice. He was a very important soloist, who made his first solo dance piece in 1948, and was quite a formidable connection to a whole earlier time from a modern dance point of view. I knew him through the university that I was attending and, in a very self important way, as young people do, I went up to him as he was balancing his cake on his lap at this cocktail party that he didn’t want to be at and I said, “You know, I’m thinking I might, I’m not sure about it, but I might want to do some solo work.” And he said very coldly, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t,” and then he turned his back on me and continued eating.

Now, that mentorship was not something about my egotism. He was giving me a very tough lesson: that you have to make up your own mind about what you want to do. “Don’t waste my time. I’m not here to coddle you.” That was important stuff that I had to learn, but it wasn’t an official mentorship, no.

Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray, Photo by Russell Jenkins

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FP: Do you think it was more difficult when you were starting out, or is it more complicated now?

BTJ: Well, I think it was easier for us. It would have had to been. The fact is that, in the dance world, for instance, the subway was 50 cents when I started working in New York. You could rent a place or crash on someone’s floor for less than a 100 dollars a week. I started out in the 1970s and New York was in the basement, economically. It was a difficulty for me, but on the other hand, there was a lot of cheap space. So it was definitely a little easier for us. Of course, we didn’t have the same expectations that young people have right now. No one even used the words “dance career” in the avant-garde — the downtown world that I started in. A dance career was laughable. We were doing something that was supposed to be so transgressive and outside that we didn’t expect to make any money from it. We were innocent; but I can’t speak for the youth of today.

Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray, Photo by Russell Jenkins

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FP: What was your first big break?

BTJ: First big break? That’s language that you might use in the commercial world, but in the dance world, it might have been when I auditioned for the Clark Center Dance Festival at the CUNY Mall and I was a nobody who was chosen to be on an evening of unknown choreographers. We showed and the New York Times came and wrote positively about it. I guess that’s what you could call a break.

FP: How does creating a work in dance differ from other art forms, such as making a painting or composing music?

BTJ: First of all, we’re using one of the most sophisticated and yet the most familiar instruments that is known to man: the human body. It’s something that has the potential for incredible universal communicability. Now, does it happen that way? No, because you need other things. You need to solve the question of technique, which is important. Unlike classical ballet, in the dance world that I come from there is no universal technique. You have to do the hard work of finding a way that fits you. That is one difference. The second one is that a painter learns how to paint and then he paints. A choreographer is constantly learning how to make an event that is ephemeral and that, by its very definition, does not exist unless he puts the sweat into it every night and makes it come to life. It isn’t like he makes an object and it sits there. All of those things add a certain kind of metaphysical anxiety to dance — making something that gives us the sense of combining life and art in the most profound way. Life is this body; art is the feelings about this body and other bodies.

Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray, Photo by Russell Jenkins

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FP: How does an art form need to work in order to reach an audience?

BTJ: Good question. That seems to be question of the day, doesn’t it? All the presenters that I know — and they are oftentimes our collaborators — are obsessed with this idea. How do we get the butts in the seats? How do we get them to come? Now, that is a public relations question, that’s an education question, which maybe brings us back to Masterclass. If, as a child, I’m exposed to contemporary dance and I have a pleasurable experience, I’m probably more inclined to see it as an adult and open myself up to what it has to say; therefore, the educational part is very important.

I think it’s important, at least for me, on how to make an attractive product. I know that’s language that would have shocked Bill T. Jones 30 years ago; but how do I get people in there and know they’re going to have an evening that’s going to be sensual and beautiful for their eyes, and it’s going to take them someplace? It seems that with almost every project I make I have to approach that topic and visit it anew. And you would think by now that we’d have a formula, but we don’t.

Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray, Photo by Russell Jenkins

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FP: What role does passion play in making a work of art as the creator, and in understanding it as an audience member?

BTJ: Well, passion. I’m a great fan of John Cage, but for various reasons, I’m a totally different kind of artist and human being. John Cage said “no” to inspiration. That was the whole mood of the mid-20th century. They wanted art to have less heart on its sleeve, be less emotive, cooler, more intellectual, and, as a result, freer. They wanted to free us from our taste — free us in some way from our personal passions. Now a dancer and choreographer, like myself, comes along, and the first thing I want, as a young man, is to be fabulous. I want to be loved. I want to lay my whole inner life out there for the world to see, so that we could commune.

There’s still some of that in me now. I want to be moved in a performance, but I don’t think I set out to move. I set out to do something that is interesting — be it the arrangement of space, the relationship of bodies, the relationship of movement to music or no music. What can be constructed in defeating expectations, that plays to what the audience wants, that surprises them? Surprise is very important. Now, passion. I’ve found that whenever I do anything I get absorbed. For example, commissions have been very important in the last 10 years of my life. Maybe that happens when you become a mid-career artist at a certain level. The commissions are what you depend on.

Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray, Photo by Russell Jenkins

When someone asked me to do a work on Abraham Lincoln, I rolled my eyes and thought, “What is this, another black history set up?” But, once I was assured that I could trust the intentions of this person, who was in fact Welz Kauffman of the Ravinia Festival , and that his intentions were good and in line with my own feelings, I was more convinced. He said, “I know what kind of work you make, go ahead and make your best work,” and I set out to do that. Then I had the problem of understanding if I had any feelings for this subject. I discovered that I had feelings for this subject that I didn’t know I even had.

Of course, I felt that I had resolved all those questions of what the Civil War was about. Was Lincoln a good guy or a bad guy? I thought I had resolved all of those things long ago. As I got closer and I started to realize how much a part of me and my upbringing he was and had been, something began anew. I found myself at times crying or angry or just reading history. I guess that’s passion, right? You have these feelings in your chest. The next question then was, “What should the form be?” To answer that I have to go to my company and I have to express my questions and reveal my passion, reveal what makes me happy or sad about this topic and engage it in some way with dance.

In my way of thinking, a choreographer works with sublime materials and that is the performers, the men or women that he or she is choreographing or making for. So I have to go to my sublime materials and tune them to our inspiration and invite them in. Everything I have in me as a salesman and as a preacher has to come out to that first audience, which is the people who are going to dance the work. The audience at large? That’s where I begin to speak to you guys. That’s where the presenter begins to speak: how does the work get out, how does the show represent it, how are the ideas, how is the inspiration presented?

That is a whole conversation in and of itself that used to make us extremely uncomfortable. It felt too much like marketing. I’ve made my peace with it; it’s part of the communication process. Now, with the audience sitting there, I can never say what they should or should not feel. There are tricks that you play as a showman. There are ways, in which sound and light and information is revealed, that can whet an appetite or get a person to feel, but you can’t count on those things. So, passion. From the point of view of the public, you hope that you have a passionate public that loves the act of seeing, that they want to be there, but you can’t count on it. You have to woo the public every night.

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FP: How important is dedication and discipline to making and performing a work in dance?

BTJ: Nothing works for me unless I am dreaming about it, even when I’m not in the studio. I say that about my dancers. I trust who they are by how much I dream about them. I even say I have to fall in love with them. I think you have to fall in love or something related to love with the project. Sometimes it’s not there. That’s very sad. Most of the time it is there and it’s often times exhilarating and painful. Dedication is the ability to stay with the task, even through the moments of exhilaration and the all too familiar moments of pain. I think that they’re both important.

Recently, at the Museum of Modern Art, I said that art comes with something that’s being pushed against. It has to do with your daily practice; it has to do with the expectations as a creator; and it has to do with the climate, in which you are creating. One thing that cannot be negotiated is the involvement of the creator. The creator has to have something at stake when he’s making it and I think that is what you mean by dedication.

Serenade/The Proposition, Photo by Paul Goode

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FP: When mentoring a young artist, how do you control your role as a teacher in order to encourage their creativity?

BTJ: I think you need to treat them as individuals and ask yourself what you might have wanted said to you at that moment. I was really tough in the masterclass at times. I also wanted them to know that I respected each one of them and that I was full of something like love for what they were beginning in their life. I had enough respect and understanding of it to realize that there was something touching about what they were trying to do. There’s definitely room for reality and breathing. With every embrace and kiss and encouragement, they need a little touch of what reality is. The reality is that what you feel is not necessarily shared by the person next to you; and you can’t be sure that it’s going to be shared by critics or an audience. It’s very important, at the end of the day, to leave them with themselves. Everything that I have said, ladies and gentlemen, you can discount; but it is my job to say it to you. What are “you” thinking? Can you take responsibility for what you think about what you’re doing?

Serenade/The Proposition, Photo by Paul Goode

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FP: Many of your works are hybrid pieces that involve different disciplines. How easy is that form to teach?

BTJ: The best way to do it is to throw the students into a problem, as I feel thrown into it. I did some of the work for my Masterclass artists. I said, “The space should be like this. I think you should have these elements. You should have actors and you should have dancers.” I chose a playwright and a choreographer. And then I said, “OK, you’ve got to find a way to work together; you’re going to work together; and your communication is going to be on this palette: two actors; one, two, three dancers.” (There’s actually three actors, considering the playwright was an actress.) And I said, “This is it. This is the room. You have three days to do it.” I wanted them to use live music and I wanted them to use their own music. I asked the choreographer and the playwright to communicate. I said, “You live in different towns, but you have a couple of months between the time you accept this project and when we meet in New York. How are you going to work on your script? How are you going to become collaborators?” I threw them into it and the learning process was how they solved the problems.

Serenade/The Proposition, Photo by Paul Goode

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FP: What do you think the young artists in a three-day workshop, or even a three-week workshop for that matter, should try to walk away with?

BTJ: First of all, I think it should be breathtaking, in that they should say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we had to work so hard.” I think that’s very important. They should walk away with the sense that they have been exposed to a lot of ideas and that they are the only ones that can process what they have been through and they can’t do it in three days, it will go on after these three days and hopefully they will pack away things that they can’t use right now, but at some point in the future when they least expects it, they will unpack this memory and there will be something that was placed in there for them. Whether they have a consciousness of this packing — I think they will — that’s what I wanted them to have. We talked a lot; we took walks together; we showed this work in front of the public, which always galvanizes the participants in a collaboration. You suddenly see your enterprise and yourselves in a whole different way because of the eyes of these strangers. I think we did a lot of packing that they ultimately took with them.

Serenade/The Proposition, Photo by Paul Goode

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FP: There are lots of choices and decisions to make when creating a dance, a theater piece, a painting, or a song. What forces best drive the decision-making powers to get it right?

BTJ: To get it right, that’s funny. Louise Nevelson, who was a very important person to me, said that a sense of rightness comes over you when a thing is ready, or ready enough. At a critical juncture — when sparks fly — everything is illuminated. Can you teach that in three days? Can you get there in three days? Performance does that. What we had been working at in our masterclass was suddenly thrust forward in a solid release, and each one of them saw that I like this, but I don’t like that. Maybe I could have done it differently. All of that is the process, which maybe isn’t the domain of beginners, but it certainly is the domain of people who have given their lives to making work. The ideas come when they come and you may not like what you see, but then you have the option of accepting it or rejecting it. Everything has its ramifications and its price.

FP: At the end of the day, what’s the most important thing that a mentor can do?

BTJ: Two things. The first is to make himself available, and by that I mean vulnerable. At one point, yes, this is an accomplished artist, and at another point, he is just a person that’s trying, striving, working… and that is very important. For them to see through the celebrity, or what have you, and feel that person is there. That tells them loads about who they might be and might become.

The other thing is that, as a mentor, can you see them? I think from doing work in psychotherapy that there is a profound thing that happens with seeing them. Stating something that’s inside of you, putting it out front, having a person seeing it through their eyes, their behavior, and their comments. The person that you respect has now given you a kind of presence — now gives you license, validity. He saw you. It’s very important that the mentor see them. It’s a big job, particularly with something as ambitious as I set out to do with my Masterclass students, with so many moving parts — but I hope they left with the feeling that I saw them.

Bill T. Jones with a young artist, from HBO's Masterclass

Masterclass airs on HBO every Sunday through June 27. Bill T. Jones’ episode will be broadcast on June 13. Students from Masterclass were selected from YoungArts, a program of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts.