As the final assignment for my History, Theory, Literature II class with Dr. Hannah Kosstrin, students were assigned the task of writing a research paper on anything they wanted pertaining to dance on the concert stage. I’ve always been interested in the social time period of the ’80s and decided I wanted to explore how Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane dealt with and responded to the social times as well as the dance world at the time. What I discovered is this; Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company brought a new aspect of personal/personable life to dance in a remarkable way.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company: A Necessary Representation of the Human Being
The shift in American contemporary dance that took place during the 1960s was a necessary catalyst for the choreographic themes and ideas that came to light and were explored in the 1980s by Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. While Yvonne Rainer wrote the “No Manifesto” and went against classical modern dance, Jones and Zane explored the “yes, and” aspect of the art form. When Jones and Zane founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982 they brought together dancers of all different shapes, sizes, and backgrounds to become apart of an avant-garde company that would generate all types of “socially conscious art” as categorized by Jones. By acknowledging the fact that dancers come to the stage with their personal histories and truths, this company began to display human life in art in a way that blurred the lines between the emotions, questions, and experiences of the real world and the world on stage.
The duo became work partners as well as life partners at a time when being openly gay was accepted. Unlike Jones’s biggest inspiration, Merce Cunningham, Jones and Zane realized there was power in presenting themselves as they were in their work. In an early duet entitled Rotary Action (1982) what is most relatable in addition to the essence of social dances from the time sprinkled throughout the piece is the joy displayed between two human beings that are dancing together and in love. While the movement vocabulary for this piece is very physical and rhythmic, the way Zane and Jones pause throughout, weight share, and partner almost resembles a conversation between two personalities. It may have been the way Jones smiled at Zane as they rippled across the floor or the freedom they seemed to experience in enjoying each other’s company, but something overshadowed the obvious: “Zane is white and Jones is black…AND THEY ARE DANCING TOGETHER INTIMATELY” (Foster 433). This understatement may be the biggest statement to be made.
In an article entitled “Will the Real Bill T. Jones Please Stand Up?” author Carl Paris eloquently stated, “while the spectacle of their bodies together as an offbeat same-sex duo may have challenged established expectations of main- stream aesthetic sensibilities, it also celebrated the identities and physicalities of the two dancers” (66). Unlike the postmodernists that deconstructed the classical dancer by returning to pedestrian movement and reveling in that kind of physicality with no regards to a story, Jones and Zane created autobiographical works that inevitably brought their personal histories and experiences to the stage. Jones initially looked to the dance world to escape categorization but met Zane who thus “asked him to define or re-define himself and the art he made in the context of this very complex and large world”. Being an interracial couple was at the forefront of this duo’s artistic identity, which caused Jones to wrestle with the question, “do I dare talk about this aspect of my heart on stage?” (Lacy).
Jones and Zane were very much aware of the power in the platform they held as artists. As their work continued, the duo created works “without sacrificing artistic ‘purity’ or formal concerns [and] also brought central issues of life back into art” (Bither 4). Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company was described as “a community of disparate individuals, as disparate as Bill and Arnie, who are triumphing over their differences in a collaboration to create something” which was evident in both the movement styles and body types of company members (Dent 53).
Both choreographers were aware of the importance of every decision made regarding the company and the choreography. Zane once stated, “I don’t think one can divide between formalist work and political content, no matter how much you try” while Jones co-signed by stating “even our omissions are a political statement” (qtd. in Blackwood). By acknowledging that the life lead and personal experiences is what makes people individuals, I would agree with all work being political content. All people are a result of a societal upbringing, no matter how different, and that fact gives people different knowledge, different views, and different opinions that can be argued or agreed with. Nothing is universal.
The company set out to generate and choreograph what they called “clenched fist art” and making statements to intrigue the mind of the viewer. Many pieces utilized verbal speech to make a statement. A piece entitled, Holzer Duet…Truisms (1985) is an excellent example of a series of artistic and political statements seamlessly strung together. In addition to the stark contrast between Jones who wore nothing but black biker shorts and his fellow performer Larry Goldhuber who wore a white button up, black tie, black dress shoes, and black slacks, there were obvious differences in body size and stature, skin color, and movement quality.
Goldhuber was reciting a text set by Jenny Holzer’s work that was seemingly unrelated to the movement happening on stage. For example, the statement “a man doesn’t know what it’s like to be a mother” was accompanied by him slowly moving his arms down into a triangle in front of him and as he continued to bring his arms out to a T, Jones runs out and latches himself completely horizontally onto Goldhuber’s arms. Similarly to Rotary Action, there were pauses in the movement to intensify the juxtaposition of physicality for physicality’s sake. Jones claimed to have wanted to use Holzer’s words because she was experiencing something he had also experienced but couldn’t articulate (Blackwood). Verbal communication evoked thought in the mind of the audience while the movement allowed space for sheer entertainment.
Zane and Jones were familiar with the statement that comes with who is chosen to perform and how they dance together from their own duets, and the investigation of gender roles continued to be very prevalent in pieces created for the company. Partnering men with men, women with women, and women with men was a constant focal point in various pieces. The choreographers played on the idea of egalitarianism, the power that could come from different bodies, and what different relationships on stage really represented.
In D-Man in the Waters (1989), Jones weaves real life and life in the world created on stage together into one. At a time where many people near and dear to Jones were getting sick and dying, the piece was based on a daydream Jones had after company member Demian “D-Man” Aquavella contracted AIDS. In this dream he saw “Demian and a myriad of friends, living and dead, in a body of water…this company of people was struggling against the current.” Jones claims this isn’t a piece about AIDS, but about “loss, triumphing over loss, life throwing down the gauntlet, and you rising to the occasion” (Blackwood).
A sense of community is established from the beginning with each dancer coming out one at a time and positioning themselves in some kind of relationship to the person before them. As the piece progresses there is an increase in speed, physicality, and desperation as dancers run, jump, and slide across stage into and out of each other. Dancers sprint and dive into each other, fall with hopes of being caught, and support each other in every way needed. Near the end of the piece when chaos is at its peak, one dancer runs on stage, jumps of the back of a stable dancer, and flies into the arms of another dancer prepared to catch her just in time. Dancers are wrapped around each other spinning off stage almost uncontrollably or running with another dancer on their backs. D-Man in the Waters is a visual representation of the support of others, community, and trust no matter if it is man to man, woman to woman, or man to woman.
D-Man in the Waters brought real life emotions such as desperation and the need for survival into the fictional world on stage. Rosalynde LeBlanc, a member of the company, spoke about the physical demand of performing the piece. In a piece that Jones claims is about rising to life’s occasions, LeBlanc states “reaching that [physical] point of exhaustion is what truly give you the feeling of survival” and although it is a piece that has an end, in that moment when “you’re completely exhausted, you’re fighting to survive” and that feeling is what the piece is all about.
One of Jones’s largest controversies was his work Still/Here (1994). The piece was developed in what he called survival workshops with terminally ill people and finally presented in a full-length evening work that included video from these workshops being displayed using multimedia technology during the piece. With this work, Jones said he “wanted to understand this phenomenon [AIDS] as a part of a continuous and cogent fabric” and do his own research. At a time where he’d already lost his partner to AIDS and he himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive, he looked for a communality between these terminal ill people, his performers, and himself (Cunningham 130).
In an insightful and touching episode of Moyer & Company entitled “Bill T. Jones: Still/Here with Bill Moyers,” Jones and Moyer go behind the scenes into the workshops that informed the stories and movement in the evening length work. During the episode Jones states that his job is to “evoke the spirit of survival” and people who aren’t in the dance world are the ones that can answer his questions. The brutal honesty that ensues as footage of terminally ill reveals individuals speaking on their mortality is one of the most vivid examples of Jones bringing human life to art I’ve ever seen. Describing something about yourself in one movement seems harmless enough, but members in the workshop shared their insecurities about their illnesses holding them back, lack of knowledge, and battle with accepting their mortality through covering their faces, closing off their bodies, and averting their eyes. Jones used these movements, unique to each individual, to directly correlate to said person in the final piece.
In a critique of the New York premiere of Still/Here, Anna Kisselgoff claims that the piece is about nothing but human emotion and that is absolutely true. Jones wanted his survival workshops to be “moving and talking about death” which is an emotional journey for those who are so close to it (Moyer). Video images, custom music consisting of audio from the workshops, and verbal speaking from the dancers paying homage to those apart of the process when mimicking their unique movements add personal life to the stage for the audience to receive. By the end of the piece the “inescapable feeling is that we know them now, too” and that we have had a glimpse into their lives and their fight to still be here (Kisselgoff).
The rawest moments of the interview with Bill Moyer was having the terminally ill draw their life’s path on paper then physically and verbally walk the group through their life; then through their death. I felt an ache in my heart as I listened to each person share their final moments; where they would be, who would be there, what they would hear, the last thing they’d see. The genuine, idealized moments verbalized ranged from watching Rosanne with the family to laying in a room full of sunlight while listening to bells chime outside the window. Trying to imagine final goodbyes and wishes brought tears to the eyes of each person who shared.
Moyer finally asked Jones to complete the task that he had asked of so many people around the country. As Jones walked through his life (and the space) he eloquently detailed each section of his life from his circular safe, “sissy boy” childhood to the idea of sex that brought his path to his abrupt stop. The questions and confusion about his identity that was represented by the curvature in his indirect pathway was interrupted when he jumped, as if lifting the pen from the page, and started a new line: life after meeting Zane. Jones elaborated on no longer being “Bill” but being an interracial couple and that love which was represented as a circle, similar to the circle of his safe childhood. Zane’s death was another lift from the page and Jones transferred back from “Bill” to an “HIV positive, homosexual, black man”. As he talked of his death he detailed dying in the same room Zane passed in and his desired feeling of lightness that sent chills up my spine. This was my first unedited glimpse of Jones as a person and the life that informed the art that he created.
It is not impossible to dissociate yourself from the work you create, but it is also possible to use your work as a way to investigate, define, and understand yourself such as Jones and Zane did with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. This groundbreaking duo let themselves be open to the world and created work that puzzled, startled, and enamored the hearts of many. By using their lives as a vessel for questioning, audience members could question themselves. The language of the works put on stage “bleeds and drools all over the place, but because it is bleeding and drooling it’s a living language” as stated by Doug Elkins and I believe that to be true (Reynolds 619). Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane dropped the veil between the performance and the audience emotionally and mentally and that allowed everyone the option to see art and life in their own unique light.
Blackwood, Michael, dir. Retracing Steps: American Dance Since Postmodernism. 1988. Insight
Media, 2006. DVD.
“Bill T. Jones: Still/Here with Bill Moyers.” Moyers & Company. Writ. Bill Moyers. Dir. David Grubin.
Cunningham, Merce, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones. Art Performs Life: Merce
Cunningham, Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1998.
“D-Man in the Waters: Reflections, Observations, Histories.” NewYorkLiveArts. Neil Baldwin. n.p. , n.d. Web.
Foster, Susan Leigh. “Simply(?) the Doing of It, Like Two Arms Going Round and Round.” Moving History / Dance Cultures: A Dance History Reader. Ed. Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. 427-438. Print.
Jones, Bill T. “Chamber Music Diary Notes.” TDR: The Drama Review. 31 May 2005. 55. OhioLINK. Web. 28 April 2015.
Kisselgoff, Anna. “DANCE REVIEW; Bill T. Jones’s Lyrical Look at Survivors.” New York Times. 2 Dec 1994: 20. Print.
Lacy, Madison D, dir. Free to Dance: A Three Hour Series on African American Dance. 2000. National Black Programming Consortium, 2005. DVD.
Paris, Carl. “Will the Real Bill T. Jones Please Stand Up?” TDR: The Drama Review. 31 May 2005. 64-74. OhioLINK. Web. 28 April 2015.
Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Print.
“Rotary Action.” UBUWebDance. Video clip. 1985.