Dance legend says his art speaks to social injustice
Bill T. Jones, an internationally known artist, choreographer, dancer, theater director and writer, visited the campus of Salem College last week to headline the first-ever installment of the June Porter Johnson Series for the Visual and Performing Arts.
Jones founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with his life partner, the late Arnie Zane, in 1982. Since that time, the group has won international acclaim, performing in more than 200 cities in 30 countries across the globe.
The State University of New York at Binghamton alumnus has also won high marks for his body of work, which spans nearly four decades and is the recipient of a host of coveted accolades, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. He describes himself as “an eclectic choreographer who is very interested in the ways that creativity and innovation meets the world.”
Jones now serves as executive artistic director of New York Live Arts, which was formed last year when his company merged with the Dance Theater Workshop. Over the years, Jones’ dancers have built a reputation for their unorthodox approach to the art form, drawing from a broad cross section of disciplines to construct creative, thought provoking works that inspire audiences to think as well as be entertained.
Growing up the son of migrant workers in the tiny hamlet of Wayland in upstate New York gave Jones a unique perspective and a sense of open-mindedness that has persisted throughout his career, he said.
“Dealing with people who are different than I am and my whole understanding of their strength , that’s very much a theme that’s always going on with the work,” remarked Jones, who was born In Bunnell, Florida, but moved north with his family during the Great Migration as a child. “…Let’s face it: I’m an African American growing up in America, so the fabric of my life has been very much informed by that.”
Jones has been known to use his art to speak to the issues he’s witnessed or faced in American society.
“There are people who would disagree with me. They don’t think art is the place to talk about social justice issues,” Jones conceded, but he disagrees. “…The body is a thing we hold in common, regardless of the thing that divides us. This kind of push and pull is a ripe subject for the art. I think that’s why dance, and art in general, is so powerful, so potent.”
The Dance Company performed “Body Against Body,” one of Jones’ vintage pieces, at Salem before a crowd of nearly 700 in the Hanes Auditorium on Friday night. On Saturday evening, Jones talked about his life and career before another large crowd.
“This was the piece that made my reputation with Arnie Zane,” Jones explained. “It’s a historical work, very exciting, very idiosyncratic.”
The June Porter Johnson Series was created with a gift from Johnson, a philanthropist and staunch supporter of the arts, explained Heidi Echols, an associate professor and director of the dance program at Salem.
“She loved Salem College and she loved the arts, so her gift was with the stipulation that we bring in big artists and make it free to the community and raise the profile of the arts at Salem College,” Echols explained. “It’s an endowment, so it will sustain the future of Salem College.”
The series will present two artists: Jones and performance artist Laurie Anderson in its inaugural year, with the goal of hosting one major artist in the coming years, Echols said.
“The arts need to be nourished and that’s what I really hope the community and the students will see,” the Durham native said of the series. “We can all in some way be patrons of the arts and that in turn gives so much back to us.”
Echols said she felt Jones was the perfect person to kick-off the series, because of the multidisciplinary approach to his work, which often includes music and poetry, and his strong commitment to education. Several of Jones’ dancers accompanied New York Live Arts’ Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong to the Twin City earlier in the week, to work with a group of 18 art students who were hand-picked to work alongside the professional artists to create a work to be showcased Friday. It was a once in a lifetime experience for the students, who were chosen based on auditions, Echols said.
“One of our seniors said she will remember this for the rest of her life. That is something that we heard from each student in so many forms, over and over again,” commented the UNC-Greensboro alumna. “It was an amazing experience for them, to say the least.”
Though he doesn’t typically travel with his company these days, Jones said he makes a point of supporting dance and art education wherever possible. The 60-year-old added that he enjoys working with members of younger generations.
“It’s always amazing to look into the faces of excited and sometimes, maybe skeptical, young people because in those faces, one sees oneself,” he remarked. “I think of myself at age 19, hungry to become part of the discourse, to get out there and show my stuff. It makes me feel a sense of responsibility and reward that there is still this spirit to create. That’s a sacred thing.”