Dance On! Happy 70th Birthday Bill T Jones
Commentary by Black Kos Editor, Denise Oliver-Velez
As we continue our celebration of Black History Month, let us shine a spotlight on the living art and artistry of choreographer, dancer, director and author Bill T. Jones, by celebrating his 70th birthday. Dance is an integral part of the Black experience in the U.S. and Black dances and dancers have influenced what is viewed as the “American” dance world since our beginnings here. Jones is a major luminary in that contemporary world, and for those of you who are not aficionados of modern dance, let us introduce him to you today.
Here’s some of his early background from The History Makers, The Digital Repository For The Black Experience, which includes a transcribed interview with him, conducted October 8, 2014, with video:
Dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones was born on February 15, 1952 in Bunnell, Florida. He was the tenth of twelve children born to Estella Jones and Augustus Jones, both migrant farmers. At the age of twelve, Jones’ family moved to Wayland County in upstate New York. After graduating from Wayland High School, Jones enrolled at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton where he studied dance and participated in track and field.
In 1971, Jones met Arnie Zane, a photographer, who helped him discover his destiny as a dancer. Jones and Zane joined with one of their professors, Lois Welk, to form the American Dance Asylum (ADA). Their work with the ADA eventually led to Jones’ solo debut with the Dance Theatre Workshop’s Choreographers’ Showcase in 1977. During the next few years, Jones and Zane performed internationally. In 1982, Jones and Zane formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Although the dance troupe met with great success, Zane took ill in 1984; and, in 1988, he died of AIDS-related lymphoma. Jones continued to work with the troupe and created personal works that allowed him to express his grief. One such work, “Absence,” made its debut in 1989. In 1990, the troupe premiered another work inspired by Zane, “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The National Endowment for the Arts lists his impressive kudos:
Bill T. Jones has received major honors ranging from a 1994 MacArthur “Genius” Award to Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. Jones was honored with the 2014 Doris Duke Award, recognized as Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2010, inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2009, and named “An Irreplaceable Dance Treasure” by the Dance Heritage Coalition in 2000. He is a two-time Tony Award recipient for Best Choreography for FELA! and Spring Awakening and received an Obie Award for Spring Awakening's off-Broadway run. His choreography for the off-Broadway production of The Seven earned him a 2006 Lucille Lortel Award.
If you can get your hands on his autobiography — “Last Night on Earth” — do so.
The personal story of Bill T. Jones describes his childhood as the tenth of twelve migrant farm children, his discovery of dance, his partnership with Arnie Zane, and his fight with AIDS
PBS News Hour aired this segment with and about Jones in October of 2021.
Jeffrey Brown reports on a story of choreography and community, as renowned dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones explores who the “we” referred to in the Preamble to the United States Constitution represents. This segment on his "Deep Blue Sea" performance is part of our arts and culture series, CANVAS.
Some selections from the PBS Transcript:
Bill T. Jones:
The piece is about the pursuit of the we.
Pursuit of the we?
Bill T. Jones:
Of the we. It's thrown around all the time, we the people, we shall overcome. Politicians use it all the time, this we. Who is this we that you're talking about, considering how fractious our country is and how it has been from the beginning?
Bill T. Jones:
Art-making is resistance. I don't know if we're the most responsible to people for managing a city or a hospital or a TV station, but you need us there because we're willing to actually ask the questions and look for answers in unexpected directions.
Bill T. Jones:
Well, I guess being the son of a Southern Baptist woman, even though I'm an atheist, I do believe there is an over-level of consciousness. Art can do that.
It might not take away all of people's pain, but it might do something else, which is just as good:, give people a context in which they can endure. That's it. Can you make something that invites people in to have a shared experience and keep living? Ah, that's it. Can you encourage people to keep living?
The visual impact of Deep Blue Sea is stunning
Jones reflects on his career in this 2019 interview at the Kennedy Center, touching on subject of fraught racial relations in the U.S.
From the archives of Kennedy Center Education, a conversation and performance with dance Artistic Director Bill T. Jones. (Recorded as part of the "Explore the Arts" series in 2011 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts).
He has been the subject of several documentaries — among them “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters”
Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters is a feature documentary that traces the history and legacy of one of the most important works of art to come out of the age of AIDS - Bill T. Jones’ tour de force ballet D-Man in the Waters. In 1989, D-Man in the Waters gave physical manifestation to the fear, anger, grief, and hope for salvation that the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company felt as they were embattled by the AIDS pandemic. As a group of young dancers reconstructs the dance in the present day, they learn about this oft forgotten history and deepen their understanding of the power of art in a time of plague.
Wishing him an extra special 70th birthday — and a thank you for enriching our lives each day.
News round up by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
'The Walking Dead' star Jeryl Prescott is sharing her story with theGrio, in hopes of getting others involved. The Grio: A new campaign seeks to address a silent killer among African American women
While many have long associated sarcoidosis in the Black community with Black men—it claimed the life of legendary comedian Bernie Mac in 2008—African-American women experience hospitalization at rates double that of Black men and have a mortality rate 1.5 times higher.
The Walking Dead actress Jeryl Prescott knows all too well the impact of sarcoidosis on Black women. “I had a very red inflamed eyeball and I ignored that symptom for a very long time,” Prescott told theGrio. A first-time mother, she assumed she was experiencing the fatigue all new moms know. “I was busy working, being a wife, being a mom and I put myself last and thought the redness would go away.”
It didn’t—and Prescott later learned the inflammation in her eye was due to sarcoidosis. While there are nine types of sarcoidosis, Black women are more likely to experience the more chronic and severe forms of pulmonary and cardiac sarcoidosis. African American women are also more likely to have multiple organs impacted.
Erin Jackson bolted off the line, her powerful legs attacking the ice, her destiny awaiting at the end of a frenetic dash around Beijing’s magnificent speedskating oval.
She didn’t view herself as some sort of trailblazer. She didn’t think about the slip that could’ve snatched away her spot on the U.S. Olympic team. She simply wanted to go faster than everyone else.
“I came here to win,” the 29-year-old said.
Jackson became first Black woman to win a speedskating medal at the Olympics — and it was the best color of them all.
“A lot of shock, a lot of relief and a lot of happiness,” Jackson said after her victory in the 500 meters.
It was an immensely personal moment for an inline skating champion from balmy Ocala, Florida, who traded her wheels for blades in order to chase an improbable Olympic dream.
His discrimination lawsuit has highlighted the problem. The NFL could solve it by hiring Black coaches. VOX: The NFL had the Brian Flores lawsuit coming
The Houston Texans announced t[last] week that Lovie Smith would be their new head coach. Fifteen years ago, he became the first Black head coach (by a matter of hours) to win a berth in the Super Bowl. Now he’ll be the first Black man to lead three different NFL franchises on the sidelines.
It’s good to see Smith, the team’s defensive coordinator last season, get another shot to lead an NFL team after coaching the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Texans’ hire of Smith, however, cannot make up for the damning allegations in a recent lawsuit filed against the NFL and three of its teams: Black head coaches in the NFL are neither hired at representative rates nor kept around for very long.
In the 58-page lawsuit filed this month, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is Black, alleged that “the NFL remains rife with racism, particularly when it comes to the hiring and retention of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and General Managers.” Flores — who was fired by the Dolphins in January, despite a record-winning three seasons — also claims that he was subjected to what he called “sham” interviews for head coach positions by both the New York Giants this offseason and the Denver Broncos in 2019. Flores says the interviews were only meant to satisfy the league’s quota for interviewing candidates of color before the teams ultimately hired white men.
His former team stands accused of multiple offenses throughout the suit, including this breathtaking allegation: During Flores’s first season as coach, “Miami’s owner, Stephen Ross, told Mr. Flores that he would pay him $100,000 for every loss, and the team’s General Manager, Chris Grier, told Mr. Flores that ‘Steve’ was ‘mad’ that Mr. Flores’ success in winning games that year was ‘compromising [the team’s] draft position.’
If an NFL inquiry finds the allegation credible, Ross and Grier will be shown to have been awfully cavalier with the career of a young Black coach in a league that already has trouble hiring them. Imagine Flores, in his 30s and in his first year with the Dolphins, put in such a position by his wealthy, white employer. It would be unconscionable.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry says he wants members of a powerful opposition coalition seeking his removal from office, replaced by a two-year transitional government, to join his election push to steer Haiti out of its current crisis and back to popular rule. “We have to go to elections,” Henry told the Miami Herald Friday in an exclusive interview. “It’s the only option that we have, and it’s the process to go to elections that we have to negotiate.” Henry says he wants to go to election “as soon as possible,” and planned to present his plan to members of the coalition known as the Montana Accord when its members meet at 3 p.m. Friday.
“We are trying to convince them,” he said. “We have a road map and we will talk to them about the road map.” Representatives of the Montana group declined to answer questions ahead of the meeting. With four individuals representing each group, the two were still meeting late into Friday evening with the Montana group pushing a press conference to Saturday morning due to security concerns for journalists.
Until now, Henry’s government and the Montana Accord supporters have been unable to reach a consensus. The international community during a virtual conference hosted by Canada last month on Haiti called on Henry, 72, to redouble his efforts to find a broad consensus among Haiti’s competing political factions on the path forward given the country’s lack of an elected president, functioning parliament or judiciary.
Voices and Soul
by Justice Putnam, Black Kos Poetry Editor
The Impossibility of Categorization might be the first theme of the American Epic. By turns, the Hero might be the Rugged Individual traversing mountain and stream, or the stout but tender Matriarch helping bridge the decreasing gulf between the Wilderness and the Town. The Hero might at once be anti-heroic, then by actions and deeds, raised to the Heroic, then by another set of actions and deeds, once again to fall utterly, all the while retaining the mantle of Hero.
As the National Myth though, the Epic functions as a device to define the members of that nation, and by what marks they were to be identified.
For the American Epic she set out to construct, Phillis Wheatley could see no method for determining who was a member of the culture and who was an “other,” indeed, the two positions expatiate each other constantly and indefinitely. Wheatley's subversive refusal to accept the taxonomies of a culture that marked her as the “other” shows Wheatley's own assimilation, she would not and could not place herself outside the narratives she recites. Her construct of the American Epic and its narratives of belonging required her participation in the culture, even if it wasn't the culture her masters constructed. For Wheatley, all Colonial Americans were equal, precisely because definitions of equivalency or difference cannot be established.
Wheatley's investigation of the dominant notions of who belongs, within the boundaries of what it is to be American, is particularly evident in her poem, “To The Right Honourable William, Earl Of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary Of The State For North-America.” She makes explicit her African marginality, while issuing correctives to her audience, important, because writs issued to the good Earl were also made public for all the colonies to read.
Writing before the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of a Constitution which permitted slavery, Wheatley offered a vision of an American Culture without a privileged center and without qualifications for membership based on race, class or gender. Indeed, Wheatley is the archetype American, a type which paradoxically marks itself as belonging, through a constant process of making and unmaking, of repeating and then differing from itself.
She wrote of this so long ago, we may get there still.
HAIL, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear'd the Goddess long desir'd,
Sick at the view, she languish'd and expir'd;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favours to renew,
Since in thy pow'r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did'st once deplore.
May heav'nly grace the sacred sanction give
To all thy works, and thou for ever live
Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot's name,
But to conduct to heav'ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th' ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God
- Phillis Wheatley
“To The Right Honourable William, Earl Of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary Of The State For North-America.”
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