Bill T. Jones
Bill T. Jones has never created a single work about AIDS. He will tell you that firmly, perhaps forcefully. But the facts that he is HIV positive and that he lost his partner in love and work to AIDS, infuse his choreography, making several of his breathtaking works metaphors for the pain and life-changing force of AIDS. And Jones himself, a commanding presence, both physically and creatively, is a testament to the strength of those living with the disease. “Most of us are burdened with the perception that being HIV positive equals death,” says the 51-year-old Jones. “This I refused to accept.”
Jones co-founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company with his partner Arnie Zane in 1982, as a multicultural, not-for-profit dance company. The work of his groundbreaking ensemble crew has been hailed as sophisticated, disarming, innovative, diverse, full-bodied, political and eloquent, a fusion between dance and theater. The 11-member company has an ever growing repertoire of 50 works and has performed in over 130 American cities and 30 countries. The company has also received numerous awards, and in 1994, Jones was given a prestigious “genius” award from the MacArthur Foundation.
Born in Bunnell, Florida, in 1952, Jones was the tenth of 12 children, the son of migrant farm workers. Jones began his dance training in upstate New York at the State University of New York at Binghamton. It was also there, in 1971, that he met his life partner Arnie Zane. In collaboration, the two choreographed and performed a number of works before Zane died in 1988. “Arnie and I were dubbed a ‘same-sex choreographic duo,’ and routinely described by the press as ‘tall and Black, short and white,’” Jones wrote in his 1995 biography Last Night on Earth. “When he died, I’d been with him 17 years—nearly as long as I’d lived with my family, nearly half my life.”
Shortly after Zane’s death, Jones created Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1990. That lyrical, three and a half-hour long deconstruction of the infamous Harriet Beecher Stowe novel explored the themes of faith, slavery, race and identity. The work also stunned audiences—and critics—with its use of “real people” performing nude in the last half hour of the work. “The Promised Land, with its hordes of naked flesh coming wave after wave into the footlights, is a visual manifestation of my profound sense of belonging,” says Jones. “This was my portrait to us—all of us. It was my battle to disavow any identity as a dying outcast and to affirm our commonality. Some 1,000 people from 30 cities stood naked, took a bow, and said, ‘We are not afraid.’”
In 1994, Jones’s brilliantly controversial Still/Here opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was later the subject of a PBS documentary. That work was based on Survival Workshops Jones conducted with groups of people suffering from life-threatening illnesses. He videotaped their moving stories and incorporated them into the performance. While Newsweek magazine called Still/Here “a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of 20th century dance seems ensured,” The New Yorker magazine dance critic Arlene Croce dubbed the work “victim art” and refused to review it or see it.
Jones’s vision remained, unmoved by the swirling debate. “The dancers would not impersonate the sick and dying,” Jones explained about creating the piece. “[They would reveal] the many variations of the struggle I learned about through Arnie’s illness and death and the illnesses and deaths of numerous others, through my own experience, and through the experiences of workshop participants. I realized that the resources necessary to cope with life-threatening illnesses were the same as those necessary for truly owning one’s life.” Most recently, Jones presented The Table Project, which again featured non-dancers, this time performing on a sculpture created by his current partner, Bjorn Amelan. “In its beginnings, dance was something that we, as a community, enjoyed. It was the way we told our stories,” says Jones. “That is what makes dance such a supremely human art. This is also what I love about it. I am proud to join in its creation.”