Bill T. Jones and the Birth of Story/Time

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THREE DECADES AGO, Bill T. Jones jolted the New York dance scene. Bucking the prevailing stripped-down postmodernism, he and his partner Arnie Zane created sensational dances collaborating with composers, fashion designers, and visual artists. A new queer æsthetic emerged that was anything but minimalist.

         When I worked at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (1988-96), I presented Jones’ dance company on several occasions. During this period, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging his world, killing his lover Arnie Zane (1988) and collaborator Keith Haring (1990), as well as scores of friends, colleagues, and dancers. Consequently, Jones’ work became politicized. Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin / The Promised Land (1990) had him searching for hope as a gay black man in America. Its final resolving tableau included 52 nude bodies of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, and genders.

Bill T. Jones in Story/Time. Paul B. Goode photo
Bill T. Jones in Story/Time. Paul B. Goode photo

        Jones is still creating his iconoclastic dances across a vast array of æsthetic explorations. His collaborators have included everyone from Toni Morrison to the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center to Jessye Norman. His honors include a MacArthur genius award and the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama, but these have not tempered his firebrand energy. Outside his own company, Jones has created dances for Alvin Ailey, the Boston Ballet, and the Berlin Opera Ballet. He directed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and won two Tony Awards for his choreography in Spring Awakening and Fela!

         As a writer, Jones published his memoir Last Night on Earth in 1995 and a children’s book, Dance, in 1998. This fall, Princeton University Press released his Story/Time: The Life of an Idea. Writes Jones in the acknowledgments of his latest book: “Story/ Time is a meditation on John Cage’s Indeterminacy, a 1958 work in which Cage read ninety stories, each one minute long. … Engaging with this seminal work allowed me to examine and interrogate a system of thought and practice grounded in ideas held by many—myself included—striving to understand how Eastern thought, liberation philosophy, and art could be used to redefine reality for both the maker and his or her audience.”

         I talked with Jones in October about his new book and projects under development.

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John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

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