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By Siobhan Burke
A documentary following the choreographer airs nationwide.
“I’m trying to feel my way into making nothing—into something,” says Bill T. Jones to his dancers, with characteristic conviction, during a stirring scene in the new documentary A Good Man. The PBS American Masters co-production, which airs nationally Nov. 11, follows the groundbreaking choreographer through the creation of Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray, the 2009 multimedia opus inspired by the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Directors Bob Hercules and Gordon Quinn don’t gloss over the tensions that arise on the journey from nothing to something, offering a candid portrait of the artist at work. DM associate editor Siobhan Burke spoke with Jones (now in his first season at the helm of New York Live Arts) about his thoughts on the film and the making of Fondly.
How do you feel about opening up your creative process for the public to see? I think there are few creators who are as open as I am in general, and it’s no accident that I’ve been involved in so many controversies because of this openness. So that’s not new. I think this kind of honesty is appropriate for this film, because we’re trying to talk about something that is not fluff. I take myself seriously as an artist, and I want people who doubt that to understand what that means and also to realize that art-making for me is participation in the world of ideas. What does it look like to see ideas struggle with each other? I think the filmmakers did a very good job in depicting this process. Is it rough-going for me? Yes it is. Some things are hard to watch; in some cases, I feel I’m leaving myself open for a lot of cheap shots. But I’m a big boy, and that’s what’s at stake at this point in my life.
You were commissioned by the Ravinia festival, which is a huge outdoor venue, to create Fondly in honor of Lincoln’s bicentennial. What were the challenges of being approached with a specific topic? Well, it was an opportunity to step into a larger arena and to test, as I’m always testing, what can this art practice do? But the challenges: Did I have any feel for Lincoln? Did I even believe it’s possible to take this sort of esoteric art form, this modern dance that I do, and get it to create something designed for a lot of people? This was going to be a popular spectacle. Was I interested in a popular spectacle? Yes, I am and I was. I like very much the insular, small-scale community that created me and Arnie Zane. That’s why I’m now executive artistic director of New York Live Arts—a rethinking of Dance Theater Workshop, one of the most important avant-garde spaces in the country, and my company—because I want my DNA more firmly connected to the DNA of that movement. But I’m also impatient with the sense of exclusion that I have there and I know other people have. The country doesn’t appreciate us. I felt that I might meet new constituencies, have more resources, and be able to have another kind of fun.
Did you have fun? I was tortured a lot as you can see. But I’m never so happy as when I’m in the studio working, no matter what the project is. I love it.
The film shows some clashes of opinion between you and the performers. Can you talk about the give and take between you and your collaborators? Well, that’s a complicated question. Now first of all, my name is on it. I am the thought leader. That’s my job. And as the thought leader, the artist in charge has to have a voice inside—which has been their guide through their whole career—and that voice has to stand for something. That voice asks the questions. And both that voice and the leader have to know how to listen. When is the heat of this pushing actually turning against the project? Find another way. Listen more carefully. Compromise. As much as I can be antagonistic, I’m a really good collaborator, because I will ask everybody for an opinion. Now I can’t just take it at wholesale. I have to look at it and say, What serves the intent of this piece as it is my responsibility to develop it? It’s very human stuff—emotions and innuendo and association. It isn’t black and white. You might attribute this to my work in social therapy under Freda Rosen, who was an important thought leader for many people about the social, racial, economic positions that inform groups of people and how they negotiate difference. That’s what this company is, a factory of human exchange and interaction, tackling a question. What does this community—a group of modern people who are very different—see, know, reflect about Lincoln? What does the work we study every day—the weight of arms, the use or abandonment of classical alignment—have to do with Lincoln’s ideas?
How did you—this community—generate the movement? One early exercise was called the Maelstrom—this idea of a huge, frightening, swirling action of nature, which I felt history was like, particularly the Civil War. I also felt that we are in an undeclared civil war now; as an individual I oftentimes feel buffeted in it and lost. Now how do we choreograph this sense of something swirling, people falling, supporting, carrying each other, and so on? We began to build meticulously using our knowledge of contact improvisation, of partnering, yet trying to create a very complex stage picture.
That being said, this is not first and foremost a dance work, and that’s not what I’m really interested in making when I do popular spectacle, but I don’t see that as a problem. Dance is one important component—a galvanizing component—but by far not the only one.
From top: Christina Lane, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow; Jones’ Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray. Photo by Russell Jenkins, Courtesy Ravinia Festival