This season, dance legend Bill T. Jones celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company, a collaboration that became an innovative force in modern dance.
Over the years, Jones has created more than 140 works for the company and in 2010, the dance troupe merged with Dance Theater Workshop to create New York Live Arts.
As part of Talk of the Nation's "Looking Ahead" series, Jones talks with NPR's Neal Conan about his hopes for the future of modern dance.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This season, dance legend Bill T. Jones celebrates the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, a collaboration that became an innovative force in modern dance. Over those three decades, Bill T. Jones created more than 140 works for his company, won countless awards including two Tonys for "Spring Awakening" and "Fella" and a MacArthur Genius grant when he merged his dance company with the Dance Theater Workshop to form New York Live Arts. He declared, we are wild about the future. In the latest series of conversations, looking ahead, we'll find out why.
We want to hear from dancers and choreographers in the audience. As funding, exposure and audiences diminish? Are you wild about the future? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You could also join the conversation at our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Bill T. Jones joins us from rehearsal with his dance troupe at State University of New York at Purchase. Good to have you back in the program.
BILL T. JONES: It's great to be here. Thank you for that introduction. It's quite a challenge.
CONAN: Well, I was going to ask you, are the challenges today, do you think, any great than those you faced when you started out 30 years ago.
JONES: You know, sounds like that kind of a question, when you ask me when was my teenage years - were my teenage years harder than your teenager years. You know, there's - some things always remain the same. I would say it's just more difficult now to live, particularly in the urban centers like New York or Chicago. Whereas, when I got to New York you could ride the subway for 25 cents. Now I think - I don't ride the subway very much. I'm going to live in the suburbs. I think it's like $2.50 a trip.
CONAN: Yeah. I think you're right.
JONES: Yeah. People if - they're just in more pressure right now to pay those bills. There's more - there's less time to be spontaneous and it takes much more of a certain kind of steely determination to do something that doesn't fall into - let's face it, the entertainment matrix that our - and celebrity matrix that our country is embroiled in right now. So dance for a lot of people means "Do You Think You Can Dance,"(ph) "So You Think You Can Dance" or competition and that's why it's like a contact sport now, creativity.
But some people hold to this other idea that it's a privilege we have to make something that's untried and that's what we're trying to do in my company and in this wonderful merger with the historic Dance Theater Workshop that has resulted in New York Live Arts in lower Manhattan.
CONAN: And what makes you wild about the future?
JONES: That's a bit hyperbole, isn't it? Well...
JONES: On my good days, I think I have no alternative but to have a forward momentum because I believe that art making is, well, let's say so without embarrassing myself or anyone, is a spiritual activity. And the culture right now is kind of confused. What is really worth doing and is not about making a buck? And what is that, beauty, building community, telling the truth, what have you? And all of those things make me excited when I meet young people who are art makers. And they seem not to have gotten the memo that the world is going down the toilet. They seem to think the world is just another place for them to act up their dreams, and I say amen.
So our place is about encouraging people to have faith in the future. And cynicism, I don't know if I feel it in my middle-aged bones. Cynicism is really a poison. The future tells us that we cannot afford to be cynical - skeptical maybe - but there's a hopefulness that I think beauty and art and meaning brings us, and I'm wild about that.
You know, we're - we have a program called The Suitcase Fund. The Suitcase Fund, it takes place in Africa and in Asia and Middle East. But one thing about that is that we sign people internationally now under terrible situations, still have the desire to make dance, to make art. Now, they need a place. They need champions in this rich country of ours. I take that to be a responsibility and reason to be wild about the future, because they're coming. They are not going to be stopped. They're moving forward. Are we ready to move forward? That's what New York Live Arts is about, and that's what I'm trying to be about in my company as well.
CONAN: I was going to ask you about responsibility. You have had tremendous success. Of course you worked very hard for it. You have had tremendous success, but that success brings with it a certain responsibility.
JONES: Oh, yes, it does, doesn't it? Please, you're talking to a guy who's feeling very much his 61 years right now. I know that's nothing. My companion's mother is 93 and she's with us for a few weeks in Paris. So everything I say here I take with some humility. Yes, there is something about gravity that pulls on us that tells us to stop, you know?
It literally pulls on our bodies, but it also pulls on our spirits, you know? And I have a responsibility, I think, to tell the truth when I can. Here at (unintelligible) we're starting a new work. But we have been graced with six young students who are apprentices. I've never seen them before, but they had applied and they were accepted. I didn't know them. They walk into the room. What do I owe them? I owe them an honest experience of what it means to have a 30-year-old company with an infrastructure, with a wonderful co-artistic director, Janet Wong. I owe them the - a full exposure to what is beautiful in the creative process and sometimes what's a little shocking and frightening in it as well. That's the responsibility.
No to abusiveness. I owe them the discipline. And God knows I can throw a temper tantrum like anybody else, but I've also got to know how to say I'm sorry. I've got to show them that artists are not dysfunctional. We're passionate but we have a responsibility we should be trying to operate, leading with our hearts and our minds. That's what I owe them.
Whether I owe the legislation - do I need to say it again, as I've said to Bill Maher on political - on his show on HBO, when he was ragging the NEA, said we don't need it. I said, look, artists are - this is not so flattering - we're the earthworms. We oftentimes go into difficult social situations and because of this kind of doggedness and this belief in something, artists can turn an old broken down building into an art center. And then after we've been there for a while, the restaurants show up, the coffee shops, the gentrification happens. You should invest in us, those of you who control the purse strings because we are the earthworms. We break up that dried up, pounded down soil so that things can grow. That's my pitch to the policymakers. I think we owe that to the discourse. Yeah, yeah, I'll getting off my soapbox now.
CONAN: OK. Bill T. Jones is with us, the dancer and choreographer. You also - you talked about gravity. You take risks as a performer too. You're not just telling other people to do it.
JONES: Is that what you call it, my madness? Yeah, I guess I do, right. Yes. What do you mean? For instance, you know, I won a Tony for "Spring Awakening."
JONES: "Spring Awakening," there is - it's a story of, you know, young star-crossed lovers and all, but it's held together - Michael Mayer, the director, was really wise, and he asked me to come in because at that time I was an unknown in Broadway world. He wanted someone from another world. I came in and said - and offered things that we do all the time in downtown dance, you know, discontinuous movements, gesture that's not connected to narrative. And many, many people found it, like, oh my God. Where is this coming from? And Russell was like, are you kidding? We've been doing this for the last - well, if you think about Isadora Duncan - the last 100 years. But if you think about the (unintelligible) church, it's like 40, 50 years. But it's all about context. That's where the risk was, just bringing things from one context into another.
It's like once upon a time. Arnie Zane and I were two men. I was 20, he was maybe 21, and we decided we're going to live like open lovers in Binghamton, New York, a small community. Try walking down the street in a town like that. We knew what we were doing, but for others it was a provocation. It was the most natural thing in the world to do but it suddenly was heightened because of the context. That's our world right now, isn't it? What is allowed in the streets of Manhattan? Take it to Kabul.
You think that you - I'll tell you what. Own up to being an atheist in certain parts of our country and run for public office. It's nothing. We all know that there are atheists in our midst. Some of us are atheists. But what does it mean when you walk want the public platform and you want to walk into the mainstream and say, I'm out, this is who I am. That's when the sparks fly and potentially that's when change happens. That's where I have tried to live, and that's where I want my dancers to live, and that's where I want New York Live Arts to be. We've got to be part of the bigger context. That's it.
The avant-garde has a problem. Sometimes we paint our way into a corner. I understand why, but we - there's that responsibility again. Sometimes you've got to take it out into the marketplace, out into the world to really test your principles. That's risk-taking.
CONAN: We want to hear from dancers and choreographers about the challenges they face today. Does it make them wild about the future? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Lee is with us from Indianapolis.
LEE: Hello. Hi, Neal. Thank you so much for your wonderful show. And Mr. Jones, thank you so much for all the beautiful work you've given dance and the arts.
JONES: Thank you. Thank you.
LEE: I'm originally from New York City but I'm now living in Indianapolis, and I'm working as a choreographer for several high school show groups and a couple of groups on the middle school level as well. And I noticed that for many children, especially in this part of the country, their first exposure to the arts is through high school music classes and programs. And those programs (technical difficulties) cut severely with the current financial, I guess, environment. But also just over the years these programs have just been cut more and more.
And many of my students have never seen a Broadway show, they've never seen a performance on stage other than what they themselves have done in the school setting. And it's very difficult to educate children in the arts when the funding has been cut so much and their exposure to it is so limited.
CONAN: Bill T. Jones, what was your first exposure? Where did you first see dance?
JONES: Well, I come from a migrant worker family living in upstate New York, having migrated from the South. Back during the heady days of the Kennedy administration, there was money around to build a gymnasium and hire a drama teacher. I was lucky. Fourth grade, I had someone there who was asking me to stand up and show off. It was wonderful.
Now, I hear the caller saying that those dollars are less and less around. Well, it sounds like in the caller herself there is - she has a mission, she has a job. I think there is a lot of ways that people now - with the Internet, with television - can see things.
Now, it's not the same thing as live performance. It's true. But I think that there - it is not as - I don't think it's as much of a desert as it was when I was child.
I would challenge the caller, what are the other people in your community feeling about this? And how are you, as one voice, lobbying, saving, directing - how are you, as one voice, indentifying the qualities that you want from professional arts? And how can you find a way - and believe me, this is the truth. This is (unintelligible) right now. How can you find a way to grow them in your community? Who is graduating from the university?
This is one very, very interesting idea people have right now. You no longer have to get a degree in dance and run off to New York. Maybe you need to get a degree in dance and go give yourself to a community. And in that community you begin - you continue growing as an artist, and you are developing in aesthetic in that town. You start somewhere. Because I know the feeling of hopelessness. We can't afford the hopelessness.
Just to recap. Are you yourself talking the talk and walking the walk? Are you making coalitions with other people, other towns? And do you really know what it is that you want to express? What it is that you want the young people to take away?
That is what I - that's the only response I can give right now. There is no guide book, unfortunately. We live in an era of crazy government. You've got to find a way really to do it on your own and use those college students. God knows there's so many people getting degrees in college in modern dance. What are they going to do with them? Well, give them something to do.
CONAN: Lee, thanks very much and good luck.
LEE: Thank you. Thank you both so much.
CONAN: We're talking Bill T. Jones. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Sophia. Sophia with us from Nashville.
SOPHIA: Hi. This is so exciting. First, I want to say thank you, Mr. Jones, for the inspiration and hope. My question is about - I just want to ask you what you think defiance means, because as a choreographer in a high school that can be kind of homogenous, people often ask me (unintelligible) is being creative an act of defiance. And I don't feel like it is. I feel it's just how I exist, but I'm kind of wondering why.
JONES: Well, first of all, don't be afraid to be defiant, you know? And I think - now, you're talking to an old rebel here - that art is made when something is being pushed against.
JONES: And I think that's OK. That's noble, as a matter of fact. We do not have to be obnoxious with it. We do not have to shut ourselves off in kind of gated communities of taste, if you will. But don't be afraid to transgress and say no, and to say you might think this is beautiful but take a look at this. That is almost the job description of a good artist, you know.
JONES: Did that make sense to you?
SOPHIA: Yes. I just think it's really interesting that finding things that are beautiful, that are different, is almost an aggressive act in this.
JONES: Well, you know, I love hearing you speak because, you know, many of us despair on being original because it seems that everything that we find, that we think is absolutely beautiful is a bit like inventing the wheel.
If you study, you see somebody's already - if not proposed the idea, then taking it to quite a level of development. Humility and education. When you have an original idea, act on it but look around, read history and what has been done. That's part of the game right now.
Culture is not only in this moment, in this geographical location but it spreads, it spreads out through time. Can you connect with this idea as it was being expressed in Paris, in Rome, in London? Can you connect with what's being done in China, in India? And how do you do that? Well, that's one thing about the Internet, which is really useful. Humility but also you got to be fierce.
JONES: I can't say the other part of that out loud. But you've got to be a fierce SOB. That's part of the job description about being an effective artist. Generosity of heart goes with that as well.
CONAN: Sophia, good luck.
SOPHIA: Thank you.
CONAN: And thanks so much for the phone call. Bill T. Jones, it's been a pleasure to speak with you, as always.
JONES: Well, that was fast.
JONES: But it's great.
CONAN: It goes quick. And good luck with the show on Purchase.
JONES: Thank you. And please let people know about New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street in Manhattan. We're wild about the future. OK?
CONAN: We'll link to that address at our website, go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with the best science books for your summer reading list and Ari Shapiro will be in the host chair on Monday. We'll see you again on Wednesday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.