Saturday, March 23

On the cutting edge


On the cutting edge

Dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones explores the impact of
terminal illness on the human condition in ‘Still/Here.’

By Jeanene Harlick

Hailed as "the most versatile and inventive of America’s black
dancer/choreographers," modern dancer Bill T. Jones has enjoyed
accolades across the country for his pioneering efforts in
dance.

Bringing his company to the Wiltern tonight to perform his
multimedia dance/theater production "Still/Here," Jones finds
himself at the forefront of a movement that brings dance into the
realm of social commentary while exploring the human condition.

But Jones’ desire to express himself in dance began at a far
more basic, and physical, level.

While attending the State University of New York (SUNY) at
Binghamton, Jones, a member of the track team, joined an African
dance class recommended by a friend.

When his "muscles responded" to the music and the dancing, Jones
realized that dance combined demanded an athlete’s physical
performance and an artist’s poetic expression.

"I don’t want to get into any debates, but the use of the
muscles is more refined (than in sports). Dancers use both large
and small muscles. It requires more discipline.

"Your legs and your arms may be doing different things at the
same time … a larger range of things is required. Sports
(movements) are more general and natural."

But Jones did employ a few sports motifs in "Still/Here." One
scene focuses on people tackling each other, while another scene
acts out a sports nightmare in which there is no ball and the
performer is running out of time.

However, Jones’s work is best known for tackling serious issues
as well as new forms of choreography. "Still/Here" explores the
emotional, psychological and social challenges faced by people
struggling with terminal diseases.

It is an issue close to Jones’s heart, who was forced to
confront his own mortality when his lover and dance partner, Arnie
Zane, died of AIDS in 1988.

Zane’s death and Jones’ HIV-positive diagnosis were the
catalysts for Jones’ "Still/Here" as he refused to be beaten and
strived to create meaning from loss and tragedy.

To do so, Jones conducted "Survival Workshops" across the
country, asking the participants to discuss their experiences in
combating various diseases and convey their emotions through
movement. Jones then used these movements to form the basis of the
choreography and design of "Still/Here."

Although critics, notably Arlene Croce of the New Yorker, have
derided "Still/Here" as "victim art" and a "messianic traveling
medicine show," Jones maintains that the performance is not
intended to be a cry for pity.

On the contrary, he describes piece as life-affirming. "I didn’t
want (the piece) to be a dirge … I did want people to leave the
performance feeling as I did when I left the survival workshops: a
mixture of soberness and a kind of elation.

"A sense of having seen some of the hardest questions of life,
but being give a jolt of energy, a sense that ‘I can face this.’
This is what I learned from the people (in the workshop)."

The affirming nature of "Still/Here" reflects the heart of
Jones’ mission as an artist.

"Artists should be affirmative visionaries. They should show us
how to be more sensitive, creative … they say ‘look what life can
be, look what seeing can be, look what hearing can be, etc.’ They
work for the greater good of all people."

Because artists offer a different perspective on the world,
Jones believes that art should be "taught as being as important as
science and politics."

"I would like dance to be embraced more by the general public,
so that there is a lively and deep dialogue between the public and
artists."

With this increasing interaction, Jones believes that artists
can be important voices in "the great human discourse" and offer
possible explanations for why we exist.

As for himself, although Jones explores the issue of existence,
he has no definitive answer as to why we are here. He does not
believe in God, but he does believe there is an "intelligence" in
the universe.

"I am part of that intelligence. I am learning that there is
nothing to worry about … I see an order to the universe when I
look at the changing of the seasons and the movements of the
stars."

Jones denies the existence of a heaven or hell, believing that
they are "models of our earthly existence" which we have created to
help us understand something that is not understandable.

As far as heaven is concerned, Jones asserts that "we’re there
already … we are not just our body, we are consciousness."

DANCE: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co. "Still/Here." April
27-28 at 8 p.m. TIX: $30, $27, $11 for students with valid ID. For
more info call (310) 825-2101. Jones will give a pre-performance
"Center Stage" lecture at 7 p.m. He will also discuss the creative
process with fellow African-American choreographer David Rousseve
in "Black & Blue" on Sunday, April 29, at 10:30 a.m. The
discussion will accompany excerpts from both artists’ works.
Tickets are $10.

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