Ghosts Past, Present and Future
As these extracts from an interview conducted in Lille, France in December 2003 attest, Bill T Jones is one good talker. And thinker. In a one-to-one such as this his manner is thoughtful and articulate, in-depth yet relaxed, and pitched somewhere between conversation and oration. It is a little disconcerting when he refers to himself in the third person. But rather than being an affectation, this signals Jones’s awareness of his own status (exceedingly high) in contemporary dance and performance as well as his need to ever so slightly distance himself from that august position. The distancing probably helps keep his feet on the ground, and his work personal and, always, very human.
Donald Hutera: You’re calling your company’s 20th anniversary season The Phantom Project. Is that as in ‘ghosts of the past’?
Bill T Jones: ‘Trying to capture that which is impossible to capture,’ that’s how I use the term phantom. Particularly in relation to revivals. Because when you say you’re celebrating a 20th anniversary and are going to bring pieces back, it’s impossible. You can never bring them back. But you do bring something else into the world. That’s what I’ve discovered.
Donald: And that something else is. . .
Bill: Take a piece like Blauvelt Mountain (A Fiction), a piece made by Bill and Arnie [in 1980] for Bill and Arnie. No one had ever done it before, other than us. And that means no one had done it since Arnie and I probably last performed it in 1985, maybe. Suddenly I’m teaching it to people, some of whom were not born when it was made. They have no understanding of the ethos of the times, what questions we were answering. But the dancers in my company are my tools. They’re trying to help me capture this work. Therefore I can recognise the motifs, but the work itself is different.
Donald: Because different people are doing it.
Bill: Exactly. And years have passed. That’s what I mean with phantom. I came up with the idea when I was thinking about how to return to Still/Here , a big, troubling work in my life that represented a lot of things. I thought, ‘Okay, if I try to bring it back literally… Impossible!’ It was made with my company at that time, who they were, who I was, who the world was. So what would I be bringing back? That’s when I first thought of it as a poetic image, of chasing something that was always going to evade you. And that’s okay. It’s now called Phantom Project: Still/Here Looking On. It’s an opportunity to really interrogate my memories of the time, and myself. I was not in the original production. Now I’m in the piece, so I can talk and dance in it. So that’s where the idea started for the whole 20th Anniversary Season. Trying to chase the unattainable.
Comings and Goings
Donald: As I see it there are two poles in your work: controversial, issue-based pieces and more abstract dances. Now, after looking at the past so much, are you in some sense at a crossroads or in a period of transition?
Bill: I’m a working artist.
Donald: You’re always in a period of transition.
Bill: Yeah. But I’m just working. I’m very pleased to have enough organisational stability that I can actually plan my work and get it funded. I can dream. Sometimes there’s a lot of demands placed on my dreaming. This 20th anniversary has been kind of an exception. It’s been two extremely busy years looking backward, trying to put the discipline of work that may be 20 or 25 years old into bodies that are, every day, inundated with my most contemporary ideas about movement. The dancers are like, ‘Wait a minute.You want us to go back and do this? I thought we don’t do this any more…’ ‘Well, because this is a repertory year, we have to go back. It’s good for us. All right?’
Apart from going back over old material, there’s the ongoing issue of making choices about how people train and what we are doing stylistically. And what Bill is doing in his body. What Bill is thinking about what is beautiful. How he would like people to use the skeleton and muscles. Performance practice. Touring. And I have to replace dancers. Some people are leaving the company. That’s another consideration. You fall in love with people, they’re there for a couple of years and then you have to trade them in for other people. How does one do that? And trying to decide, is it a lie that you can really make a community any more? That’s what I’ve always wanted to do in having a company. I wanna have a group that feels like we know each other, we have some intimacy. So I’m rethinking ideas like that. And thinking about the next work I wanna make. What is the nature of it? What is the music? I don’t even know when its ultimate premiere is going to be. I know we have some co-sponsors. We need them for the fundraising, another thing that’s always going on. And trying to find if the new work can be built in stages. One part here, paid for by these people, and another part there. I’d like to work with guest artists. Some I’ve had on the line for about two years. They’ve been waiting for me to get down to it and invite them in. I’m a little scared of making room for a person who just comes in for this project. Can you not be as spontaneous in your working habits?
Donald: It contradicts what you’ve just said about working as a community.
Bill: It’s an open shop in a way, if you will, because new energy can come in and out of it.
Donald: I imagine you don’t want to become hermetically sealed.
Bill: Some choreographers need it to be hermetically sealed. ‘Shut the doors, lock the windows. Don’t let anybody in. It’s just me and the dancers.’ Some people work very well that way, with beautiful results.
Donald: Has that ever been you?
Bill: Depends on what the project is, I suppose. I’m almost being forced to think away from that now because of company life. When you have an international company it’s people coming and going. Maybe a project might have a moment when you’re all locked in a room together. That can be exciting.
Creativity and the Group
Donald: Last year I edited an issue of a magazine called Animated, published by The Foundation for Community Dance. Its themes were creativity and learning. As a sort of editorial connective tissue I asked about a dozen people in dance seven identical questions, one of which was ‘When are you at your most creative?’ The best response I got was from [veteran radical American dancer-choreographer turned film-maker]Yvonne Rainer. Her answer was, ‘When I’m having a BLT [bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich] in a New York luncheonette.’ I got it.
Bill: I don’t get it.
Donald: My interpretation is, she’s at her most creative when she’s not trying.
Bill: That’s when she is at her most freely imaginative? In other words, that’s when her thoughts flow best? Then I know what she’s getting at. For me it’s sitting on the toilet, in the morning, when I’m fresh. Suddenly I’m finding I’m solving problems from yesterday’s rehearsal with a kind of freshness that I never had. But to take that into the actual studio. You know, there’s something that others have said: Ideas are cheap. Action is hard.
Donald: You’ve gotta get up, get out there and do it.
Bill: For Yvonne maybe the concept is most important. My problem is, how to get it outta the head and yet keep that freedom, that creativity. And that is when you’re trying to convey it to somebody else, or you’re trying to get something from someone.
Donald: They become collaborators, and interpreters. Is your current group of dancers pretty much satisfying your vision? Are they good channels for it?
Bill: You know, as much as I have been promiscuous and have a wandering eye, when I am with the person I am with they have my attention. It’s the same with the dancers I’m with. I’m always giving them the benefit of the doubt. So yes, I think it’s a very good group. I think they’re interesting to look at, talented, full of heart. All of the things that I really value.
There’s a feeling that we have as a group, and I think it comes across onstage, of something exciting being shared and dicovered every night. That’s what we work at. Always before the show starts we have to come together as a group. We stand in a circle. We sing quietly. We hold each other. We do stretching. That’s the ritual. So are they everything I need right now? Yes. Am I still thinking about the future? Yes. People are gonna leave. And are we still developing a way of working that will only be realised by someone who is not yet there? I’m sure that’s true. But in the meantime, this group. . I’m proud of them.
Donald: You should be. I enjoyed the performance last night on a number of levels, and one of them was this feeling of community.
Bill: That’s not something I take for granted, because I don’t think every company does it. We do. We make an investment in that. It’s part of what you get when you see us. If you wanna know where Bill’s politics are, where Bill’s spirituality is, I think it’s all in that notion. Something validating about a group of people who are very different, coming together, overcoming those differences and placing their efforts at the service of … That’s a question mark. There was a fragrance that you got from the performance, a sense. That is the positive value of what I’m trying to add to the contemporary discourse. What this group is. They’re individuals, but what are they collaborating at?
A Proud Institute
Donald: What are you least and most, proud of today?Power/Full
Bill: I suppose maybe my least-proud-of is fragility of ego. And lack of courage sometimes. Being easily shaken. Most-proud-of, that I have been able to keep this company going for 20-plus years and it is on an upward trajectory. Something I have done or represented has been able to attract people with integrity and passion. I’m proud of that.
Donald: In your 20th anniversary brochure there’s a reference to a possibility of a company home.
Bill: We’re getting a home in Harlem in about three years or so, which is all part of this forward momentum. It’s called what used to be a bad word: institutionalisation. You have to accept that you have to become an entity that’s known to many organisations, because those organisation can help you live. That’s how I understand institutionalisation. It doesn’t mean your ideas freeze. Where are they located? What is their mission? What do they do?
Donald: I don’t think there’s that much risk of you and the work becoming rigidified.
Bill: I don’t know. I’ve always been afraid of institutionalisation. Institutions were the thing that we were constantly trying to blow up when we were kids, because they were hypocritical, moribund. Squelching inspiration, hedging people in, dividing them. That’s what we thought. Now, as I find myself moving towards becoming one, I have to believe it’s something else. I think that has to do with daily soul-searching. Something about the way everyone understands what we’re there for. That’s the piece that’s very important. Who will tell us who we’re there for? Bill T. Jones? He does a lot of it.
Our history tells us something. And our dreams tell us something. My board wanted to know, ‘Okay, Bill. We want to ask you what do you really want to do in the next five years? Sit down and tell us all your dreams. Don’t hold back.’ I wrote it down. And then I printed it up. And I handed it out. My daydreams and all. Suddenly this was a real agenda where other people, some of whom I barely know, could look at it and attach dollar amounts to it and put schedules on it. It’s real now. Your dreaming is real. It can still change. But as the ship gets bigger and picks up more speed, you don’t turn quickly. I’ve been on a big ship before. It’s amazing how long it takes to turn that thing.
So, this instituional dream is a bit like that. It takes on a momentum of its own.