Choreography and the Social Contract

Published in: November-December 2006 issue.

Following is an excerpt from the author’s keynote address at the annual meeting of the Tides Foundation in San Francisco on April 28, 2006.


CULTURE has been described as “the well-stocked mind.” I am here as an advocate for culture, the place wherein creativity, ideas, ideals, and action reside.                        Some words: desire, will, courage, service.            To start with desire: as an artist, I have been described as being what the French call “militant” or “engaged.” I’m often asked what should an artist do. I say the artist does not have to do a damn thing, but be the freest person in the society, the one running naked, sometimes literally, through the streets thumbing his or her nose at all dogma and received wisdom. But an artist is a man or a woman with a location in the society, a class, a gender, a sexual orientation, and a worldview. What does that individual that is the artist desire or need to do? That is my burning question every day, the one that I trust unites us. What are my effort, my art, and my life at the service of?

I desire: I desire to be no slave to fear, to be clear in thought and action, to be compassionate and, yes, to be safe, loving, and loved. I want to hold up my end of the social contract to be an effective citizen. And you?

I feel what we desire makes us who we are. I am a man who desires to be a creator and an artist. I also desire to organize the efforts of others. As artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, I make dance-theater spectacles and I dance. But I have also been building an enterprise, a community, over the last 25 years or so. Movement is the basic language, but by no means the only one.

I have to pause here for a moment. Our bodies are mysterious—as mysterious as the social contract that connects them to one another. My body was maturing at a time when the world, as it is now, seemed on the brink of exploding. The historians in the room could certainly tell us of the profusion of armed struggles in Africa and Asia, of the Weathermen here in this country, and of student violence around the world. I have always said that I started dancing because athletics could not answer to the need I had for a brand of lyrical, sweaty effort that was more like singing and had no easily describable winners or objectives. But I think that dissatisfaction was also determined by my need to find another way to live in this body and to answer to the social contract.

Across the Bay, at the galleries of the Yerba Buena Center, there is a remarkable show celebrating the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the Black Panther movement. It is an ambitious show that uses photographs and artifacts of the period and artworks created by an array of artists that reflect the conditions that forced a movement like the Black Panthers into existence. At the beginning of the show, there are some heartbreakingly beautiful portraits of young people listening to a speaker at a rally. What is so moving in these photos is that these people, though certainly angry, have a sense of hope and possibility in their faces. What the organizers of the show have made very clear is that for all of its flaws and shortsightedness, this was a powerful movement in that it was at its core a cultural movement. It was trying to relieve people’s suffering by feeding them, expanding their awareness, and giving them a new language. And yet it failed for any number of reasons. But what did not die and never does is the spirit of expectant hopefulness that permeates every aspect of this show. It was around this time that I decided—though I did not realize I was making a decision—that I would channel that anger, hopefulness, and expectation, that I would hold up my end of the social contract and become an effective citizen, an artist.

Of course, at that time the preoccupations of the nineteen-year-old that I was could only see dancing as a doorway into the “counterculture” (whatever happened to that term?). This was not the counterculture of the Black Panthers but instead that of Woodstock, Free Love, and “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.”

Let me make a checklist of what dance represented to me at that time:

1) Freedom. As I said, this new activity demanded sweat, but a different, more exotic and socially risky sort of sweat. Dancing demanded surrender, and individuality, and vulnerability: a type of social interaction missing in athletics.

2) Race. At that time both Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theater of Harlem were in their ascendancy, celebrated, harvesting the fruits of a long struggle. Blacks and what would come to be termed “people of color” were ambassadors, artists, and activists firmly commanding the moral high ground that came with a history of disenfranchisement. This particular door had already been opened for me.

3) Gender and sexuality. From my nineteen-year-old perspective, many major modern dance figures were women (Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Twyla Tharp, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham, et al.) and/or gay men (Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Eleo Pomare, Alwin Nikolai, Murray Louis, Louis Falco, and so on). The avant-garde, experimental dance forms, such as contact improvisation, promised a world of dancing in which all traditional power politics, such as who was lifted or who did the lifting, who was supported by whom, who was allowed shows of strength or of delicacy, were being challenged. It was a relief and a revelation to discover that anyone could dance with anyone regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or race. (Issues of age, class, and disability would come later.)

4) Freedom, part two. And because space was cheap and many of us lived communally, dance offered an alternative to the nine-to-five reality that most of us had been raised to expect, whether children of migrant workers like myself or refugees from the middle classes that filled the ranks of the contemporary modern dance scene.

That’s how it started. But soon came the awareness that there was a grand tradition that used dancing to speak: choreography. “How to speak” and “about what” has preoccupied me for the past 35 years or so.

I was piqued a couple of days ago when I read the lead editorial in The New York Times concerning President Bush’s response to the recent senatorial debate on immigration. The President “blandly labeled the Senate compromise an ‘interesting approach,’ as if he were pondering a piece of modern art rather than the fate of something central to his domestic agenda.” What bothered me here is the unstated assumption that modern art can readily be summarized as merely “interesting.” Interesting? In a world ever more filled with mind-numbing mediocrity and stupidity, perhaps one should be satisfied that modern art is associated with the word “interesting.” And yet, when I look at the intense hopefulness captured in the faces of the young warriors on view at Yerba Buena, when I remember my own nineteen-year-old chest about to explode, I realize “interesting” is not enough!

But still, Blind Date [Jones’ latest dance work] is a work of art. It finds me continuing to articulate the potential in human movement; to discover, assign, and expand the meaning of such movement, for myself, for my dancers, and for whoever will give it their attention; and to strive towards the beautiful. At the same time, this art is part of an even more ambitious enterprise, as always, driven by the attempt to address the social contract on my terms and in the new world, and this is where I hope that our desires will commingle.

A dance company, like any other cultural institution, must define its ever-evolving form and mission. A dance company is difficult to sustain; I do so because it has become a place where people can be developed, transformed from child to adult, from student to teacher, from alienated seeker to member of a community. Here we create strong-minded citizens who question authority and are skilled in negotiating differences with their strong-minded peers. In my group, æsthetics and forms are paramount, but must always be understood within a broader social and historical discourse. This community works to finds its place in an even larger community or coalition of supporters, sponsors, presenters, funders, fellow artists and collaborators, and witnesses like you.

After some thirty years of practicing all the above, we are on the brink of acquiring a permanent home in Harlem. Harlem promises to be one of the most cosmopolitan locations in the United States. My organization wishes to put down roots there and grow a research laboratory of sorts. Yes, it will house our dance company, but it will also be a place where others at different stages of their careers can build works and experiment. We will develop a lecture series, open to artists, scholars, innovators in literature, new media, performance, music, visual arts, and film. It is my hope that people, as diverse as my company is diverse, can meet and exchange notions: art and politics, æsthetics and still others that will announce themselves when the time is right. So I am creating an organization that is a community within a community, acting as a tool (weapon?), sorting out, weighing, and giving form to ideas.

The celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been known to say that there are three engines driving society: the political, the economic, and the cultural. In this infuriating and confusing era, when the first two are running on empty, he says that it is now that the cultural engine must go into overdrive. I think I know what he means. We have to make a pact; we have to be serious about a cultural movement. Look at the faces on the Yerba Buena’s gallery walls and then look in the mirror. Is the spirit still there? I am striving to make my efforts of thirty years part of this engine, and I invite you to do the same. That is our mission right now. As you well know, there is so much to be done. And yet nothing is more important than this.


Bill T. Jones is a modern dance choreographer whose dance company is currently on international tour with his latest work, Blind Date.


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