September 21, 2019

It Was ‘Cool Central’: Bill T. Jones Leads a Trip Through His Archive

It Was ‘Cool Central’: Bill T. Jones Leads a Trip Through His Archive

“There are a lot of emotions in these stories,” the choreographer, dancer and director Bill T. Jones said one evening this summer as he rummaged through some of the hundreds of folders and document boxes that make up the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company Archive, which had just been acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

There were the outlines of a pathbreaking dance career that took Mr. Jones from the outer edge of the avant-garde to the cover of Time magazine to Broadway to the artistic leadership of New York Live Arts in Chelsea — and time capsules of New York’s recent artistic history.

As he rifled through document boxes — part of a collection that includes photos, production notes, costume designs, film and audio materials, and even T-shirts — Mr. Jones, 67, told some of those stories contained in the archive, whose acquisition was announced by the library on Tuesday.

He spoke about the politically charged, beautiful dances exploring race and sexuality that he made with Arnie Zane, his partner in art and life, who died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1988. About his interactions with other artists at the intersection of the avant-garde and the New Wave in 1980s New York, including Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe, and the toll taken by the AIDS crisis. And, somewhat reluctantly, about one of the great controversies of his career: how “Still/Here,” his monumental 1994 meditation on mortality, was dismissed as undiscussable “victim art” by The New Yorker critic Arlene Croce.

Here are edited, condensed excerpts from that conversation.

BILL T. JONES Blauvelt is a town in Rockland County where Arnie and I [who met at the State University of New York at Binghamton] lived after we left Binghamton, where we had been members of a collective called the American Dance Asylum, one of those crazy counterculture collectives — asylum in the sense that you could take refuge, and a place you could be as insane as you want to be. We were very impressed by Robert Wilson’s “Ka Mountain” [performed near Shiraz, Iran, over a week in 1972], with the Shah and all of these millionaires, so we grandly named ours “Blauvelt Mountain” — just a duet for these two men. This was synthesizing contact improvisation, [the choreographer] Steve Paxton and Arnie’s love for German constructivist theater. These costumes we wanted to be exaggerated, but ultimately for some reason we did not use them.

There are two things going on in this picture. Mapplethorpe had wanted to do my photo, and as you know, he made a celebrated series of naked black men. Arnie Zane organized that the photo be taken — but he couldn’t show my [penis]. And what’s more, it was not just another bit of rough trade or black boy flesh: This is Bill T. Jones. Arnie was very concerned that I be understood as a choreographer, and not a model. And Arnie was very concerned that he be strong, not the little guy being lifted around by the black guy all the time. He wanted this picture. And he’s dressed in his what he loved, jodhpurs. He’s like the circus master.

Willi Smith. Keith Haring. Arnie Zane. Bill T. Jones. Peter Gordon. That is the ’80s. Opening night of “Secret Pastures” was Cool Central — Andy Warhol was in the audience with Madonna, who were good friends of Keith’s, at BAM. Arnie’s mother and father came, and they had not had an easy time of it, but they finally were impressed when they saw Andy Warhol was sitting two rows back and the place was sold out. It was a very big, important moment.

What more can I say? The obvious is that three out of five of us are no longer here.

Keith had a show at the Robert Fraser gallery in London. He took four and a half hours, and he meticulously painted me with white body paint, and then he said, “Oh, by the way, the press is coming.” You can’t see it, but the paint, he started from the top down, so the top was already beginning to crack by the time they came in. [The photographer] Tseng Kwong Chi was the one telling me to do flattened figures, as flat as possible, so I credit him: That’s why they’re the kind of stylized like this.

Huck Snyder [who designed the sets and costumes] was imitating what he called children’s theater in the 19th century. So it was all naïve, all these masks that Huck Snyder designed.

It started as “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Featuring 52 Handsome Nudes.” Little Rickie was a kind of hip, East Village novelty shop, and they had everything from paints and pencils to decks of kitsch playing cards called “52 Handsome Nudes,” handsome male nudes.

There was a concern — Jesse Helms was on the floor of the Senate, waving Mapplethorpe’s book, talking about filth and so on. And at places we toured, board members quit because they heard this immoral show, anti-family show, was coming. So it became: “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land.” The Promised Land: a place where we were no longer afraid to be together, naked. It ended with a stage full of people, standing naked, bathed in a golden light and singing Julius Hemphill’s “Children’s Song.”

Here’s a story for you. You see those lyrics to “Wayfaring Stranger?” We were invited to bring the piece to Spoleto. We were performing in a 16th-century chapel. This one section was called “The Supper.” The dancers are all doing an accumulated series of gestures, moving from chair to chair — some of them suggest prayer, some of them suggest sex, all sorts of thing. And I’m singing “Wayfaring Stranger”: “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger.”

CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

There was always an improvisation which could spin in any way, a vocal improvisation on my part. And that night, I began to ask the question in front of this very Italian audience: “Where is the pope tonight? Tonight, I am the pope.” I think that’s what it was. And of course, this piece ended with all these naked people. The next day, I was denounced by the Vatican.

The archive contains a rich trove of materials related to the creation of “Still/Here.” This lyrical exploration of mortality and survival included oral histories that Mr. Jones, who had been open about being H.I.V. positive, collected in workshops from people facing life-threatening illnesses. He incorporated material gathered in those workshops into the piece itself, which was praised by The New York Times as “a true work of art, both sensitive and original,” but dismissed by The New Yorker as “victim art.”

I thought: We’re doing a piece about the journey of the body. We’re born. We grow. If we’re fortunate, we find someone who we fall in love with, we reproduce and then we die. That’s a kind of a noble arc. That’s what it was going to be about: mortality that unites us.

But it started an even bigger controversy because of that article, the “victim art.” And it seemed so unfair, because it was not trying to say that we were victims. Rather, the people who did the workshops, people came to me, I told them: I am a man. I am not a practitioner of any kind. I’m just someone who needs his hand held, trying to understand, myself — how can I live knowing what I know about my own body and life and death? And people were very generous. It was not supposed to be people who were sick wanting unsick people to feel sorry for them. It was supposed to be giving information, it was supposed to be about mortality and how mortality connects us. And the rest of it is kind of history, about how it came out. Something that was very divisive and very hurtful. In some ways, I’m still recovering from it now.

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