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BOND: Mr. Jones, welcome to ""Explorations in Black Leadership."
JONES: It's a great honor to be here.
BOND: It's a pleasure having you here. I want to begin with a question that begins at a time when you were two years old. It may be difficult for you to answer in a factual way, but it's part of this program. What did the Brown v. Board of Education mean to you when it was first decided in 1954? I understand that you didn't read it in the paper then.
JONES: But, you know, interestingly enough, maybe it's not quite Brown, I'm thinking of more Little Rock or those places. I remember being a small child who had not yet learned how to read. I don't think I knew how to read and with my father who was a working man which was odd because he was a working man with many children, one day, it was a Saturday morning, and there was a roadmap of the states and I had learned a few words. Like I say, it was not Brown, but it's related, but a small child could — This is probably a four-year-old child and I had learned Little Rock and he was so proud of me that I knew that. I could see that word, "Little Rock," but it was also what I'd seen on television about civil rights.
Now, Brown v. Board of Education, it was only when at age 12, having been living in Wayland, New York, Steuben County, a German Italian community, that one of the people from the old days who, when my dad was a migrant contractor, a young man came through our town heading south and he wanted somebody to go with him to keep him awake and so this fellow says, "well, Billy, he talks a lot," you know, so she sent me off like that one afternoon. No clothes. Nothing. And the whole way down reading signs, just reading, reading because I was an avid reader and then for the first time seeing a "coloreds only" in my life. It was something that I'd heard about but I'd never known. We pulled up to a gas station and he said "your bathroom's around the back." I saw there was a bathroom right there. I went around to the back and it was locked and it was filthy and he said, "well, man, you gotta go in the woods" [laughter] like that, you know. So, these were all my — This was my response to Jim Crow stories from the point of view of a young second generation black person who didn't really understand what was going until I was back down in the South, so I'd always never had any tension around going to integrated schools.
JONES: Thank God my dad wanted to become a black Yankee in 1955. I'm born in '52 and so I went K through 12 with the same kids all the time. It was an exotic idea but maybe a little bit more than that because there was a kind of an anger and a sullen hardness that sort of came over my parents' countenance when they talked about my experience of going to school and I've never understood what that was. Now, was it a kind of envy? What was it that they — Like it was something you don't know because they know, my friends from age 2, 3, 4, 5, were like little white kids. They were the kids that my parents were working for. I went to the school. I graduated there. In the '60s, I dropped out like they were dropping out or so I thought. How do you drop out if you're on welfare, but they were middle class kids and everyone was like living the counterculture but there was something my parents, in their faces about segregation, something I didn't know and they didn't have the language to tell me.
BOND: Did they ever develop the language to tell you? Did you ever find out what it was?
JONES: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah, I definitely found out what it was. That trip I expressed to you, I was outraged by it and by the same token, I couldn't understand why any of the people we went south to visit wanted to still live in the South and even to this day, I have been sort of mining very uncomfortable feelings about things I have not resolved in myself about the history of our brand of apartheid. Yeah, I found out about them but I've spent my whole life dancing in another sphere. Maybe that's what the artist life has been. It is so painful the world that I came out of that in the '60s when they said, "you are not your body," hallelujah, I'm not my body. You can be whoever you wanted to. Hallelujah, I can be and that was pretty good for a 17, 18, 19, 20-year-old.
BOND: But as you found out what the Brown decision was, did you believe that the promise of it would bring great things for you, that it would change your life in a positive way? Were you understanding that this held out hope that some things would be different?
JONES: Hmmm — Well, like I say, it was the water I swam in. For me to say I had a revelation, it was just the way things are. I'm sure you see it now with young folks here who have grown up in the era of the Internet. They don't know anything before it. Yeah, they know about it, but they can't know it. It's impossible for them to know it. I do know that I'm grateful for my parents' ire, for my parents' pride, in a way, and why had my dad wanted to be a black Yankee. What was wrong with being a black southerner? And they tried to explain it in terms of things like the Civil War was taught in the South as if it had been won by the South. They tried to talk about the shoddy books, that my older brothers and sisters had books that were handed down to them from the white schools. They wanted us to have all the opportunities of the white kids. What was this all about? They just knew that there was something different between whites and blacks, but I went to school every day with whites. I was the only black in the class, so what's the big deal. There was a mixed message that in some ways I'm still trying to understand in my heart today.
BOND: But did you come to understand a portion of it?
JONES: Oh, yes. What do you mean, do I understand?
BOND: As you're going to school with these kids and you know you're black, they're white, did it become clear to you that there were distinctions among you, between you?
JONES: I knew it very well.
BOND: And what did those mean to you?
JONES: What did they mean to me?
BOND: The distinctions mean to you?
JONES: At that time?
BOND: Yes. And later?
JONES: Well, you'll have to excuse me, I'm an artist, so I speak in anecdotes and feelings and impressions. What did it mean when the first grade teacher as we were filing out at Christmas time, what did it mean that she took a big orange and put it in my hand and said, "and, Bill, you have a very special Christmas." What did it mean that Charlotte McLaughlin, the choir teacher with her sensible shoes and her ladylike somewhat Victorian manner, what did it mean when she was coaching me one day for some vocal competition about my diction? "Your people, if they want to be equal, they must be equal in all ways and they must be better," she said. Okay. Did she say that to Susan Schultheiss, my young German American friend? Did she say that to Scott Kilbourne, the people who were my classmates since kindergarten? Oh, no, no. She was saying it to me.
Now, what did it mean when the prom came around and we'd grown up together since kindergarten but suddenly now you're sexual beings and who was going to go to the prom with you. It's never been a problem. It becomes a problem. Word gets out in the community that this person you've gone to school with since you were five suddenly has been asked to go to the prom with you and her parents have come in and said, "we ain't racist but we can't allow this to happen." Oh, I understood. Oh, I understood but I understood in a way that a young person understands, you know. I wanted my privileges. I wanted a "normal" life but there were some things were not normal. It was something abnormal about my dad moving us into this environment. Even though we were in the free Yankee North there were differences.
BOND: Now, who were the people who were most significant in helping you develop your talents? Your parents, I'm sure, but your parents and whom else? Who around you as you were growing up make you aware of talents you have that might flourish?
JONES: Marylee Shappee.
BOND: Who is she?
JONES: She was in the flush years of Camelot or maybe a little before, our school system had money to bring in a drama instructor, speech and drama instructor. This is a small country school. Those must've been good times and she was an outlandish kind of person, very sophisticated, very sardonic. She wore mini-skirts. Around the community, she wore mini-skirts. She said she hated television. She said I don't need someone to tell me how to wash my toilet bowl. She spoke of things like people being stupid and mediocre and she called me by my last name — "Jones, B. Will," she said when I was constantly showing off like the little black boy in the class who wanted to be loved. She said, "cut the crap." She's the one who talked to me the day after Martin Luther King's speech had been — Well, actually, it was not that speech. I think it was probably Selma or someplace like that and asking me, "what do you think it means to hear, everyone to hear him speak like that and the people in the church saying 'amen,' talking out loud like that?" and then she explained to me the differences in the oration, what bathos was, that this speech, the March on Washington was the pinnacle of bathos and that it was different than purely intellectual reason. It was appealing to an emotional response in a group and my ears were perking up to all this value system that she was trying to talk to me and I am one of her students. I just loved to hang out with her but she really would talk to me and she had her blind spots but she actually knew that something was happening and she wanted to know what I was thinking about it.
BOND: And others as you grow older, go away to college or go to college?
JONES: Well, I've written a book about it, so some of them are a bit well worn, the stories, of course. There was —
BOND: They're new to us.
JONES: Yes. [laughter] There was a person like Percival Borde who was the husband, gorgeous, tall, Trinidadian dancer who was the husband of the great Pearl Primus and he was teaching West African and Caribbean dance and he actually showed me an example of what a black body, a black male body moving could be "like" and here I use the word quotes, "in a natural way." It was not Sammy Davis, Jr., and the Rat Pack. It was not the Nicholas Brothers. It was not Duke Ellington. It was not Chubby Checker. Here was a man who as I talk about my book, when he raised his arms and he did what we call the Watusi study or he showed us the Dumballah study with his kind of acerbic comments about it and how to hold these ritual sticks as the watusis did and it will take you 10 years to understand how to even hold these sticks, but we'll do our best, he said. He was embodying and I thought, ahh, that's what this arm, this chest is. That's what these arms are. That's what these legs are. That's what this syncopation I'm hearing all the time is and I was able to see past popular culture through him. That was a very important one.
The others later on become important in other ways. Merce Cunningham is the choreography free of psychology and social location. Martha Graham in her own way, choreography rooted in the psychoanalytical analysis of experience as Karl Jung might have understood it, all of these things. The avant-garde of the '60s, non-narrative film, non-narrative. What does it mean that art is purely about perception? It's not about some symbol of something else, that it could be its own thing.
Paint dripping down a canvas, Jackson Pollock, all those things. Why is it beautiful that gravity -- isn't that sloppy that paint is allowed to drip down? No, it's an evidence. It is evidence of an essential elemental event. Can you find that in your body? What is gravity? What is the weight of an arm? What does it mean? What is space around us? All these things helped extend what I understood art to be.
BOND: Now, something more mundane — were you ever in a leadership position in high school and in college, student government, that sort of thing?
JONES: Yes, I was. I'll give you two contrasting examples. One, the same Marylee Shappee, our drama teacher. Well, there had been problems — I think this is the order of things. We had done The Music Man, the Buddy Hackett part, the kind of the clown was given me. Buddy Hackett is supposed to have a girlfriend at the dance, but once again, in this community, the only community I had known, suddenly on stage to be a girlfriend would be too much of a statement so I had to dance a solo. The showman inside of me loved it. The other one knew there was something weird about this, so she just allowed me to make it up and I made it up. The whole community came to its feet applauding, but why was I dancing alone? That's another issue. I think she tried to circumvent that.
The next project was going to be Arthur Miller's The Crucible. She let me direct it and I'm seventeen. Now, she was there with me, but I don't know if this was somehow or other she was rewarding me or she was heading off something and then there was the walkout because the issues of the '60s had come to our little town and girls wanted the right to wear pants and they were not allowed them, so we organized. We — I — organized a spontaneous walkout. It was a cold December morning and we're all outside chanting as we had seen on television the way you're supposed to protest and so on and I became this face of it. The state troopers came to the high school to examine my locker. The principal, a decent man, Mr. Hulbert, called me into his office and asking me did I know what I was doing. I said, "you know, there's a revolution happening in this country" — A revolution, right. Girls should wear pants. Well, a revolution happening. He said, "lower your voice." I said, "are you trying to suppress my freedom of speech," and he said, "buster, you don't know what you're talking about and you should just" — I don't remember everything, but he threatened to call my mother in and he did call my mother in and this is when I understood something about Estella because when he called her in all she could think about was those white people and her boy.
JONES: And she spoke in that language, "just because my" — Now, you have to realize this is a very proper and if they're listening to this anywhere because I often sound like I'm beating up on my small town, but when Estella at 200-plus pounds wearing her leopard skin coat and a hat this big and a giant purse, when she came in there, they would move like this because she was going to raise hell because it was always — Now, I've seen this the negative as well, we know the problems with urban youth and maybe mothers or fathers who excuse the children's behavior because of racism, but anytime they called her in, she knew it was a plot of white people trying to get her boy, her boy. Lynching. All of that.
Yes, those events were seminal events. It didn't take much for me to become a leader because I felt I was performing being outrageous and talking to Mr. Hulbert, man-to-man like this, he was a good man. He definitely deserved more respect, but suddenly it became black and white for me. It was not about him being this father figure anymore.
BOND: Do you remember specific events, historical events that passed by as you're growing up, as you're in lower school, in high school, then in college? Things that impacted on you?
JONES: Yeah, like everybody. I remember exactly the moment when John Kennedy was shot. I remember Marilyn Monroe's death. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. There's a work in our repertory called "Monkey Run Road" which is trying to talk about the afternoon. My brothers and I were home alone and we heard that Armageddon was about to happen, the world was going to go up in flames. I remember those things very well.
BOND: And they had an impression on you?
JONES: Oh, yes, they did.
BOND: Each different, I imagine. Why was Marilyn Monroe's death so striking?
JONES: That the great, the glamorous, the goddesses and gods among us could die. They could die horrible, lonely deaths and that, yeah, that was a lot right there. There was no escape from this thing which we called life and its circumstances.
BOND: That even she could —
JONES: Even she could. Yes, even she could. And I loved her, of course, like many people but I can't say she was the most important star in my heavens but she was important. She was important. Sidney Poitier, for instance, what did he mean? Last year the Kennedy Center when my sisters were there with me and there was a thing that happened in us and I never met him all these years — maybe once I did at a dinner with Alvin Ailey years ago — but there was something when he was introduced to us that it was emotional in a way that we all talked about later that was very exciting. It was more than exciting. What was that when he did — What was that film? Not "Band of Angels" but the one where he's the handyman for the nuns?
BOND: Yes, I know what you mean.
JONES: But that was the official face. That was the face that we identified with, intelligent, decent. Sexuality had to be controlled.
JONES: Muted. As a matter of fact, I once in the '70s I was going to make a solo which was called "I Am Not Sidney Poitier." It was the first time I thought of doing the "I Have a Dream Speech" backwards which I did later do in a piece called "Last Supper at Uncle Tom Cabin." "I Am Not Sidney Poitier," but meeting him, in answer to your question, he was an event. He was an event in the cultural sphere that said something about possibility and so on.
JONES: Now, what about Malcolm? What about Martin Luther King? Martin Luther King was killed in '68. I was in 11th grade. I remember Mrs. Shappee and the public speaking class. We could take any position and argue it, and I thought I was just being provocative and I made a speech. She said, "well, make a speech with a position," and I was saying I was trying to speak imagining what it would be like to be Malcolm X and trying to skewer him which in a room full of young white German and Italian kids, they didn't understand what the Uncle Tom and all of that, but by the same token, when the questions came back from the groups, some of them were really hard right-wing questions. I remember one guy, Charlie, and I won't say his last name, who was a friend of mine, said, "you know, you live by the sword, you'll die by the sword and that's what happened to this King." "What?" I didn't have the language but I was incensed and it became, that little exercise in Drama Club, suddenly became very real. "Charlie, you feel that way?" "He's a communist." And I thought, oh, that's — This is where I live. That was — I mean, every artist, every person goes through that but suddenly the world around you changes. I've known these kids since we were practically in diapers and now I hear attitudes that I know around my house are totally different and I became very vehement and then as we used to say and I'm sure you remember that, before it was a black, they used to say you got colored.
JONES: I got colored in that room. I'm the only one and I'm a favorite, you know. Everyone loves Jones, you know. But suddenly Jones is speaking the language of his mother. Suddenly he's talking about you and us. It's me in the room and Mrs. Shappee was watching it bemused but also she realized what had been let out of the bottle and she saw what it was doing and she cut the exercise. It was a very important moment when the world came into that little classroom and I think that sort of started a trajectory of what I thought art and public appearances, what a public voice was.
BOND: There's a great segue here. So, how did you decide on your career? What made you think I'll do this?
JONES: Hmmm — Well, unfortunately, I had too much freedom and not nearly enough resources. It was a time when you could — My mother and father were just glad that I had graduated from high school and I'd been accepted to two schools. Wow. They didn't have the money to send me but there were programs so I go off to the one, the State University of New York at Binghamton with the idea that I'm going to run track and go to Broadway. What did I know? I'd done Drama Club in high school. Had won awards and, like I said —
BOND: But you knew you wanted to be a Broadway dancer?
JONES: Oh, I don't know what it was. I knew I wanted to perform and be fabulous.
BOND: Okay. But you were thinking of Broadway, not —
JONES: What else was there? There was nothing else to think about. There was rumors that there was a tap dance class in the next town over, 10 miles. My parents were potato pickers. In the evening, you know, talking about soccer moms, no. They're coming from 30, 40 miles away, dead tired after having been up to here in potato gook, muck all day, or they're tired. No. You've got to get yourself to those classes, then you gotta get back out into our house which is also 10 miles out in the woods and up a hill and down a valley. You've got to do all that. It's beyond me, so I didn't do it. My mode of thinking was Drama Club brought all of that. I went to school with the idea of what I'd learned in Drama Club which was doing Broadway shows and it was only there that I began to take African dance classes when my niece said, "come and check out these classes." My coach, little did he know, let me go. I was a pretty good runner. I was a sprinter and he said, okay, as long as you're working on your cardiovascular system, it's okay. That was very open-minded, wasn't it, but it was the time. It was 1970. And I go to the class and the door opens and that acrid smell of sweat and the drums, I was hooked and that led to modern dance and so on.
We didn't think of careers because you have to realize it was also the workings of the counterculture which said don't fall into a straight job and that's what straight meant, something other than your sexual orientation, right? Don't fall into a straight job because the cool people don't have jobs. The cool people, you know, live on farms or just hitchhike from one commune to another. The cool people.
Now, does it matter that your parents are on welfare? That your older brother looks at you and says, "man, if you knew what I knew you wouldn't be messing around with this art stuff. You'd be trying to make some money," and I just thought that he was a straight, uptight dude that didn't know what he was talking about. Well, going into those classes was a way of the art world bringing you in because I love — I say I fell in love with my sweat. And there's a different kind of sweat from the athletics field. There is no apparent opponent. The opponent is you. The opponent is the history of your art form. The opponent is seeing the person next to you at the ballet bar who is a young woman who has been studying ballet since she was 5 or 6. Now, her leg goes up up up and even higher and your leg's bound like an athlete's or runner's legs, like someone who picks potatoes and a normal person's leg can barely get them up, but I had this desire to dance inside of me and where will you dance.
Well, there's Linda Grande [sp?] who was the teacher at that time who really didn't like me very much because I was much too showy. A room with only two or three guys in the first place, always wanted to be seen, and she said, "well, you know, you need more technique and maybe you should check out the" — She didn't say check out, "maybe you should go to the Graham School." The Graham technique is, what's the word, accommodating to black bodies. Accommodating to black bodies? And, of course, there's Mr. Alvin Ailey. Those were my options, right? Never mind Merce Cunningham, never mind ballet, never mind anything, but that is what they were advising me to do. Of course, I did neither.
JONES: I joined the Dance Collective, an avant-garde Dance Collective that said you can make up your own style of movement. You don't have to have your leg in the air. It's about your ideas. It's about something mastering space like an official artist does and I just sort of went that way. Was there defiance in it? I think there was and my companion was one of those precious I call them magical creatures, a bonafide alienated person. Alienated. He was Jewish, Italian, a small man, and he was gay.
BOND: And you're talking about Arnie Zane?
JONES: This is Arnie Zane.
BOND: And he's not a dancer?
JONES: He was not. He had taken his degree and he did have a degree in art history and biology. I think he had finished school in two years. He'd done all the requisite courses. Really bright guy, but he —
BOND: He's a photographer, really?
JONES: At that time, he was flirting with it. He met me and, first of all, he wanted to be in love. That was most important and he wanted a partner that he could be passionate about and I became that partner. And then what are we going to do? Life was a great adventure. Well, let's try a little photography. Let's try a little dance. Let's travel to Europe. Let's do this. Well, I'm 19 and he's 21. What are we doing? But he gave me a passport and I don't know if a lot of young African American people had in traveling with a young white man like that. "Oh, let's take a trip to Europe." "Well, yeah, let's take a trip to Europe." I don't know if I would've done that without him.
And I'm sort of — This is what I do. You have to rein me now. The discourse now is becoming a little unfocused.
BOND: Besides romantic, what did the relationship mean to you?
JONES: Oh, a big question. Well, what did the relationship mean to you? Now, I'm going to jump here. A few years ago the Smithsonian did a dinner with civil rights leaders talking about the legacy of the civil rights movement and I could kick myself to this day because I sat there and waited for everybody — Dorothy Height was the only one, Mrs. Height, was the only one that actually mentioned the gay. One of the legacies of the civil rights struggle was the gay liberation movement. I remember being a member at the University, being a member of the Third World Corridor. This is something that the black students in response to what had happened in Ithaca a year or so before, black students demanded —
BOND: At Cornell.
JONES: Cornell. They demanded they have their own living facilities that were going to represent their demographic, black and Hispanic kids wanted to live together in their own dorm. When I come with my experience of being from upstate New York in this German Italian community, I wanted authenticity and so I insisted that I live there as well but I wanted to do it on my terms so I was seeing young white women at that time and then lo and behold, the smoke clears and there is this young white man and there was a in one of the weekly dances in the black dorms, there was a dance and I went to the dance. My music was different than that. I was listening to Al Green at that time. I love him but I wasn't — I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, but Arnie Zane and I went and, now, was this a political statement. There came the slow dance. The slow dance and the whole room, you know how folks — So, I took him by the hand and we went on the floor. You could literally hear the gasps. Now, what did it mean? What did that gesture mean? Why were you — As my detractors have said, why were you rubbing our face in it? I didn't know I was running their face in it. I thought, hey, free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last.
Cuts all sorts of directions, plus you were not your body. You were not your parents' chains. The future is yours. And what could be — And there's only one great common denominator in all of humanity and that is the capacity to love and if this is true, it did not matter who was doing it. This is all the — It sounds pretty good in the mouth of a 60-year-old man, but at that time, it was sort of in the background noise that the culture, everything you and I have been talking about had given me this moment and so we danced together and the world changed. Suddenly, you were out and not only were you queer, faggot, whatever, but you're also with white boys, so what did that relationship mean? That's where it started.
Now, after that, it was, no, this is not, as Toni Morrison said to me, in America there's a lot of what we call sexuality is actually kind of acting out. There was maybe some of that, but immediately we knew what the deal was. You have a partner. His parents had been together, at the time of his father's death, over 40 years. My mother and father died — My father died when my mother and he had been together at least 40-some years. We knew couples and we thought that was ours as well and we went for it and that's because of him, a homemaker. For an effeminate man, he was extremely macho. He knew where his home was, this, this and this, and he wanted, and I was part of that. We began to build a life together. We always insisted that we never hide who we were.
Now, that was tough going into black situations, into my family. It was also very difficult getting invited to Passover dinner at his house. We caused literally a fight in the streets of Maspeth, Queens. They took us to the police station. Oh, we knew this was not neutral. This was not just Romeo and Juliet, no, no, no. You knew every time you walked down the street together, every time you applied for an apartment, every time you'd go into a restaurant, there was an negotiation happening and you had to oftentimes stare somebody down, but what gave us the strength to do it? I don't know. Was it the times? "You got a revolution, want a revolution"-- what is that? The Jefferson Airplane? Revolution. It's easy to sing about it but we knew what it felt like.
BOND: Now, he [Arnie Zane] encouraged you to develop your dance company, did he not?
JONES: He encouraged me to be a professional dancer, artist. And he wanted to be with me, therefore he came along and the form that we were involved in — I should talk about avant-garde democratized dancing could allow a person who had very little official training to be making work and getting serious consideration. Yes, that's what we were doing.
BOND: So, as I said, he's not a dancer and you know you're going to be a dancer.
JONES: I had taken more classes in college, let's put it that way. I consider myself a self-taught dancer. But, yes, for the sake of my discussion, we'd say he wasn't, but now we both, by 1982, were a name. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane. We were a choreographic couple, so he obviously became a dancer, but this seques into how the form was changing. It had the values of music. It had the values of visual arts and maybe before it had the values of what Mr. [George] Balanchine would've understood as being concert dance value or Mr. [Alvin] Ailey, even, because we were actually doing things like making stage pictures, mimicking film. What is the accumulation? What is a retrograde? How do you make everyday movement heightened? How do you take heightened movement and make it everyday? Those were the sort of questions that we had and they were not — So, when you say, was he a dancer, which meant, was he a svelte technician? No. Neither one of us were, but those were not the values of the dance world that we were a member of, the values that I suppose it allows me to be here at the University of Virginia and doing a piece called "100 Migrations" with people, any and all comers, anybody who comes, they can be part of this.
You call that dancing? What're you doing? You're marching about. You're doing gestures. You're organizing space. Well, quite frankly, yes, we do call it dancing. Dancing is the movement of people and things in space and time, my definition. Choreography is the discovery and/or generation and organization of dance materials. Balanchine choreographed for elephants in the circus. I could choreograph everybody in this room. You and I could do a dance. The way we switch the chairs, all of those are values that came out of the avant-garde in the 1960s, the place that opened the door for me and for Arnie Zane to call ourselves dancers.
BOND: Your life is so fascinating. I have to try hard to get back to my script here. What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? How did these interact for you, if they do? Vision, philosophy, style?
JONES: I'm now the executive artistic director of an exciting new entity called New York Live Arts which is the blending of a historic downtown avant-garde dance facility called the Dance Theater Workshop and my company. One of the things we're wrestling with right now is, what is vision? Is vision a mission statement? Now, vision is something like I see it like a philosophy of life, something that you think your enterprise is devoted to no matter what changes around it. That is, you might say the — We believe that the body in American society has always been beleaguered. You can blame it on our Puritan underpinnings, that there's been this body mind dichotomy, that dance has bravely at least since the turn of the last century been trying to confront. The body is all right with its appetites and desires. It does not have to be policed and what's more, when it is set free, it is a beautiful thing that is good for all people watching that body. That is a vision. Now, your second one was —
BOND: Vision, philosophy and style.
JONES: Well, I think maybe it's philosophy is the same. We are not afraid. We are not afraid of bodies. We are not afraid of bodies who look differently than we do, have different genders, different histories. That philosophy and that there is beauty when those bodies can take their differences and negotiate them, negotiating differences is a very important part of our philosophy and place it at the surface of something else. Now, what is that something else? It comes back to the humanness underpinnings of our whole conversation today. How do I, to say I'm a body and a dancer, how do I negotiate the feeling of alienation I've had since I was sucking at my mother's breast, how can I feel a part of this world.
Alienation is a very important attribute of many artists. I think you can see it throughout history but particularly modernist artists. The alienated, lone genius is the central image. I love that, you know, the idea of Picasso saying I don't search, I find. Jackson Pollock throwing paint. Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Mr. Ailey himself dealing with his mother and the idea that he wanted to do dancing. I feel like that has been with me always and I think it is something that actually is very important for the culture, that those lonely alienated persons be allowed to look for bridges to the culture. It's counterintuitive, isn't it? If you define yourself as being a part but by the same token, you want to be one with, that is the push and pull of my philosophy. And what was the third?
JONES: Style. Merce Cunningham says style is repetition. Now, that's very kind of with tongue in cheek almost. Well, I think he's not far off. Style is attention to certain details that are repeated in some sort of orderly, maybe even scientific way as a kind of an infrastructure for expression and feeling. We move our arms in this way. These are our subject matters. This is the type of music. This is the formal relationship to a public. These are all stylistic elements.
We say that we don't teach a technique in my company. I have a wonderful collaborator, Janet Wong, who is my associate artistic director. She's a brilliant teacher and classically trained and yet with the kind of intelligent mind of the best of contemporary modern dance, but we say we don't teach a technique like Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham or Chiquita Ballet. We teach style which is in some ways a group of questions — how do we solve the problem of making a piece, for instance, like the one that you saw, "Blind Date"? We want to talk about the same thing the whole country is talking about, what seemed to be a collision course between our Enlightenment ideals and our present legislative and political practice full of doublespeak, full of lobbying, full of infighting, and yet everyone waves the flag of our being about liberty, tolerance, progress, and we said that there, our ideals and our practice are on a blind, are on a collision course which could be prosaically put, like a blind date, where it could end up being something new is born or it could end up being people kill each other in the backseat of a car.
That's what "Blind Date" was. That was a stylistic choice to use that kind of a raucous incoherent stage with lots of non sequiturs and someone singing Etta James' "Security," talk about faux McDonalds as quackadack burgers, films that have images of Paris Hilton eating a hamburger, all territory that is disorienting, but that was the style of the piece, the disorientation was the style of the piece, but it ends with me singing a song that Estella Jones taught me very old in life, "Walk with me, Lord, walk with me. Walk with me, Lord, walk with me. While I'm on this tedious journey, stay with me, Lord, stay with me." So, how can you go from this messy canvas to that very sentimental old-fashioned cry? And I'm not a religious person. When I say "Lord," I don't know who I'm talking to, but when she said, "while I'm this tedious journey," tedious — it's so — And here she's sitting diminished, this woman who had 14 children who was a hellcat, who raised hell in the school, is now sitting with me and I asked her to sing a song and she sings that song and that comes at the end of my work. That was a stylistic choice.
BOND: Did you ever think of being a singer?
JONES: I thought of it, but [laughter] and this Jessye Norman told me, we were doing "How Do We Do," she said, there will be no vernacular on this stage. [laughs] And because that's what I sing, I sing the vernacular.
BOND: Back to vision, has your vision changed over time?
JONES: Hmmm — You mean, like today?
BOND: Or yesterday or —
BOND: Maybe tomorrow?
JONES: That's a good question. Thank you for that. You know, there's something about — There's no rule book. How do they teach a young, self-involved body-oriented maverick how to be middle aged? How to have knees that are bad. How to have white hair, the planes of the face are chiseled in ways that I would not have it. I want the smooth face of a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old, and if the body has been the sole entre into all sorts of situations, problematic for black men if you can understand, the body is changing. Your calling card — Yeah, talk about vision changing. Make room for younger bodies, be more articulate, explaining things which used to be only feeling state. Oh, it's changing.
BOND: Let me characterize the making of leaders in three ways: (a) great people cause great events; (b) movements make leaders; or (c) the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these was your path to leadership, a, b or c?
JONES: The last one.
BOND: So the confluence of unpredictable events created you appropriate for your times.
JONES: Uh huh. Okay, I wasn't even thinking about myself. I was thinking of who I think great leaders are. I see myself as maybe an influential maker but I don't know if I've been a leader. Abraham Lincoln, Mr. [Barack] Obama are the people —
BOND: Yes, but in this, you're a leader and you think your leadership role in the position you presently occupy now is a confluence of events?
JONES: Uh huh.
BOND: Various things which occurred in your life and made you who you are now.
JONES: And I appreciate this question. It's a somewhat embarrassing question because one could easily step into all sorts of caca around it. Let me give you an example. I think that there is no — We couldn't underestimate the weight of the AIDS epidemic on the way my narrative has found its place in the culture. For good or for bad, Arnie Zane and I being two of the first persons publicly to go forward with his HIV on McNeil Lehrer Report and, if any of your listeners want to look it up, it was about 19 — He died in '88. This might've been in '86 or '87, and he was public at a time when people were hiding it like crazy. I came out as HIV positive after he died. Maybe I was tricked out by a writer from The Advocate, a gay paper, who asked me and I casually mentioned it and he published it in the first line. Suddenly, it was out, but I made a work called "Still Here," because of the feeling of Arnie's death and what I assume could be my death. It didn't happen that way. I was moved to make a work that tried to be some sort of great culmination, summation statement about mortality and then I did a very big work that got all sorts of attention. We're talking like the front pages of papers. It had people fighting about victim art and what things were appropriate.
Now, my personal story and a time that was freaked out about the plague, I remember getting calls two years before that from major publications wanting me to talk about it and I refused. Once I did talk about it, suddenly all of this attention, whooom, came on me, came on that work. That work is considered a seminal work in the development of American dance and I think it should be.
Now, does that make me a great leader? That makes me a person who actually had something coming at them. They moved toward it. They did the best that they could do and the rest is done by the culture, so that's how I answer that question, not to be in any way disingenuously self-effacing because I'm certainly not, but I have enough smarts to know that sometimes it is literally the way the wind is blowing and how it catches your sails.
Heroes — the same idea. People who have performed heroically, you ask them later, well, what — They say, well, you know, I just did what I thought I had to do at that moment. That's my understanding of circumstance and leadership in some degree. Let's hope our leaders are well prepared. Yes, I could speak the King's English. Yes, I have the twin ballast of a serious understanding of 20th century modernism and my mother can sing a spiritual that can break your heart, so I think I know what those ingredients I put together regularly.
BOND: And you have all the ingredients?
JONES: I have the ingredients. In other words, you might say I'm prepared enough for what comes down the pike.
BOND: Now, do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
JONES: Ohhh, wow. You honor me with these questions. Would you say it one more time?
BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate an agenda of a movement?
JONES: Hmmm — Well, the second half of that —
BOND: The agenda of a movement?
JONES: Yes. I try to say that Arnie Zane and I were — We were following the blueprint of the 1960s. In order words, I am not my body. Any distinctions between people because of race are illusory. Anyone if they work hard enough can be the President. All of these things we were taught, you know, that "free at last, free at last, freedom" so now is that the "agenda?"
The first part about that, this is what's really tricky when you have a performing artist sitting in front of you. We spend so much time trying to figure out how to get people to come and see what we do. Is that called following? Is that the same thing?
BOND: They come.
JONES: They come. They come, but you've got to work at it. It's a never-ending — Audience development never ends. Why am I not like a humble saint? Why am I not like Gandhi? I just do what I do quietly and then they will all just find their way into a theater and see it. No. Self-promotion is a big part of the job description. That's why I say you honor me with these questions that you might ask to a Desmond Tutu or somebody like that or some of the other august persons you've had because we're artists. We're making it up and we're not balanced people and most of us are incredibly self-involved, self-absorbed. Literally, that is the fuel that we burn.
BOND: But people come.
JONES: People do come.
BOND: And it isn't all development.
JONES: It's isn't all self-promotion, you mean? Or audience development?
BOND: Yes, that the people come. It's not all that you've engaged in.
JONES: No. I've been part of a discourse inasmuch from what I have said and done as how what I have said and done has been used by a discourse. And that is something to consider. Like when we make a work, we say it's like giving birth to a child. Will that child go on to find a cure for cancer or AIDS or will that child end up as a mass murderer? You don't know when you let them out of your house, do you? Our work almost has that same potential. It can be used by the world. It can be ignored by the world. It's a crap shoot unless you get to a certain level and you have this organ which is called your marketing machine, your public relations machine that's relentlessly positioning you, positioning the work. It's not clean business. It's not clean. The person that starts the work, the person that's trying to sit here with you is trying to speak honestly but it's not — I can't give answers that are going to be designed to be put in marble on the Bill T. Jones Memorial some day, right? They're often really ambivalent. They're oftentimes self-effacing or benighted in terms of self.
BOND: But on the Bill T. Jones Memorial, it won't just say he danced. It'll say he thought, he thought, he stood up for marriage equality. He supported the NAACP and its boycott of South Carolina. He did this. He did that. There's more to it than —
JONES: Thank you for reminding me of that. The other voice is one that sometimes is so much in the moment.
BOND: I don't want to deprecate the dance. The dance is who you are, what you are, and it's why people come to see you.
JONES: I'm a retired dancer and when you look at my stage, the purist would hardly say it's dance.
BOND: I wish I'd been in the theater when you jumped on the stage in "Fela!" and danced with the dancers there. My wife and I are so angry that we by luck did not go.
JONES: You did not see that?
JONES: Well, I'd say right now I dance when I'm happy. As my mother says, I dance when I — "Child, you gotta get out of self," she says. "Get out of self." The Greeks call it ectasis. When the spirit is in the room, when the god comes into the room, be ready because that's the dance that only happens at one time, that one night. That happens a few times when I'm happy.
BOND: Do you have a philosophy that guides you through life? Has it sustained you through challenges or moments of alienation? Does that philosophy stick with you always?
JONES: Hmmm — Well, yeah, strange at these moments that maybe you have it as well. It's the old people. It says I want to be ready. "I want to be ready, ready to put on a long white robe." What does that mean, "I want to be ready"? I want to be ready for you, a man who I've grown up respecting and now you're asking me sitting here with me and asking me these questions. I want to be ready for my company this afternoon. I want to be ready for my death because I've dodged a bullet. I'm in love again. I want to be ready for his death.
I have nieces and nephews who are living in poverty that I thought we would never see again. I want to be ready to be their uncle, he one that has gotten a Kennedy Center Award, that one that says to them, you don't have to live like this. How do I do it? How do we do it without being a real oppressive force, blaming them for circumstances? No. Generosity of heart. I want to be ready.
BOND: I think you're ready. Let me shift gears here. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or issues of society or are these the same thing for you or is there a distinction?
JONES: I think they're the same thing, although maybe different make ups. It's very important. You're still asked the question in the dance world, in the art world maybe, the dance world particular, what is black dance? And I used to say and I remember causing quite a kerfuffle once one morning in a program called "The Future of Black Dance," when I said I was an artist first and then black and the room exploded.
BOND: I'm sure.
JONES: They went, how dare you. Wait a minute. I'm saying that, you know, I'm thinking of Proust, hearing a collaborator read about what the great Amiri Baraka was saying about reading the modernists, James Joyce and others. Yeah, I said that Proust, I want to make dance like Proust. He wrote pages about the space between two clouds. That's what I thought, oh, isn't that what we're all here for? It's about transcendence but, no, no, no, no. You have an obligation and so I said, okay, many people think that black dance is dance about the trauma narrative of being black in America and I used to say, no, black dance is anything a person who defines themselves as black chooses to make and call it dance. That's black dance. That's where I'm at right now, quite frankly.
And I'm quite proud to be, for instance, at the Kennedy Center a few years ago, there was masters of African American dance. I didn't want to be on that program. I'd go there on my own. Suddenly, I've got to be now black African American dance. I make dance in America, but you know what now? I think it's just like I get "Fela!" I know about Fela's music that it comes in through your ears, but you hear it first in your hips and I'm proud of it. I'm proud of it.
I was just meeting with a major rapper the other day and these guys, lots of money. I won't mention his name, but everyone knows who is and he now wants to do this thing and he wants to do everything and he wants to do it all now and he has the money to do it and I keep going, whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down, what is the story. But, no, well, why would he slow down? Who was it that said, was it Toni that said we were the original post-moderns? African Americans have always taken what's there in terms of language, of style, and mash them up and then make something out of it. Unfortunately, they move on and others make the money from it, but maybe that's changed now, but look at tap dancing. What was that? African polyrhythms meets European or let's say Irish step dancing, clog dancing in America, and we make a form that changed the face of theatrical dance around the world.
BOND: And to you that's not the black dancing?
JONES: Well, I'm proud of the black DNA in it. I'm very proud of it, but now it's certainly world dancing, isn't it? Have you listened to "American Idol" lately? I don't do it very much but I say to someone now, everybody is down, everybody can sound like Aretha. They've studied it. You know how to bend those notes. You know how the melismas. You know how to soar like that. Is that a black sound now? Tell me. You tell me. When you listen to someone on the television or on the phone, there used to be a time you could tell in three words if they were black. Can you anymore?
BOND: No, you can't now.
JONES: No, you can't. Should I bemoan that? Hey, evolution now. Everything truly free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty. We're now grown into each other's world culture and your DNA is proudly in there, so just settle with that. You don't have to stay segregated anymore.
BOND: You made me think about the last two Broadway shows or the last two shows my wife and I saw. We saw the one about the "Jersey Boys."
JONES: I love the dance in "Jersey Boys."
BOND: Well, and then we saw The Temptations and I've loved The Temptations all my life and that style of dancing they do and that strikes me as —
JONES: Well, there was a choreographer.
BOND: Charlie Atkins. I met Charlie Atkins once.
JONES: See, and I never knew. We grew up thinking that the performers made the steps.
BOND: I did, too. But, anyway, which is it, the "Jersey Boys"? Is that black dance? Are they doing black dance?
JONES: Hmmm —
BOND: They're certainly not black. These are Italian boys.
JONES: They're not, are they? That's a very good question. That kind of little hip switch there they do that's synchronized. Where did that come from? Maybe here at this great university, the social historians will tell us but I would think that came from everybody watching black people move. Remember that--what with Bing Crosby, The Birth of the Blues, so, bless him, but remember the storyline that here was this prodigy of a singer who was down in the levee teaching the black people how to sing? He was teaching them how to like harmonize and he invented the blues, right? Well, we don't need to go to those things anymore to know how much pain there is about who owns what. Now, maybe if your question is about what is authentic to an African American experience and what's my relationship to it, I'm still trying to understand that.
BOND: No, that wasn't the question.
BOND: Is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader, someone who transcends race?
JONES: I translate this into music, into theater, into, I'm sorry, theater dance charms. Yes, of course, there are. There are — Well, what was Michael Jackson? A troubling personality but a genius and I think Michael Jackson, he had a solid sense of himself as an African American but he saw himself in a class with people who were these — how do people say it, strange hothouse plants, like Elizabeth Taylor, like name your biggest stars. He saw himself as one of them. There was a whole other sphere that he belonged to which in a way helped him be able to be a beacon, a certain type of creativity, and integration for many, many people, so, yes, he did. Odd choice isn't it, because his life was so painful and weird, but that's okay. That's what goes into being a leader, I think.
JONES: Leaders are a bit distorted. What was Bayard Rustin? Let's talk about Bayard Rustin. That was another thing around that table that night at the Smithsonian. Bayard Rustin never came up. Now, this was a man who was very — extremely cosmopolitan.
BOND: Well, who was around the table? Maybe Mrs.[Dorothy] Height was the only person who knew Bayard Rustin.
JONES: Did John Lewis know him?
BOND: Yes, John knew him.
BOND: Roy Wilkins knew him and —
BOND: And was mad at him all the time.
JONES: More than mad at him.
BOND: Yes. Yes.
JONES: Nasty stuff.
BOND: Nasty —
JONES: Everybody around that table. There was something being policed around what we can allow into the wake of our great civil rights struggle and that is — And I feel like I was there to do that, but I was afraid I would be predictable if I started taking off the shoe and hitting it around this issue, so I was going to be really — I was going to behave, first of all, with humility toward my elders and with the idea that giving them the benefit of the doubt, they all know that the women's movement, the gay movement, all of those were very very much influenced by the success of the civil rights movement which civil rights was supposedly not only about black people, was it?
JONES: It was about human rights, right? But we know it really meant black rights, right? And I was sitting there waiting for that to happen and I think it was cowardly. I think it was — That was kind of — I'm not proud of that moment. I'm not proud of it. I wanted somebody else to bring it up, to say it, but nobody did except for Dorothy Height.
BOND: Well, I'm not sure if I know really why that would've occurred. It could be that Bayard is at a lower level in leadership than these people gathered around the table.
JONES: Why was he at a lower level?
BOND: I don't mean — because he was not the great speechmaker like King. He wasn't the leader of any great movement or organization like Roy Wilkins was or Dorothy Height was, so he was a lesser figure. I don't mean a lesser person.
JONES: I don't know if you've seen, but I recommend it to you and any of the people listening to this, "Brother Outsider."
BOND: Oh, yes, I've seen it.
JONES: Well, my understanding was this is the man that was lecturing Martin Luther King about non-violence.
BOND: Oh, absolutely. He taught King about non-violence. He said King couldn't organize vampires to go to a blood bath. [laughs]
JONES: Well, but my point is I thought that the man because of his troubling identity could not be in the upper echelon.
BOND: Yes, that's true.
JONES: You know, so it's not that he just somehow was not, but it was stacked against him and he was a good player. He was a good guy.
BOND: Yes, a very good guy.
JONES: He thought the mission was more important than him and I wish that he had been a little bit more self — Not even about self.
BOND: Less self-effacing?
JONES: Less self-effacing.
BOND: And less willing to take a back seat.
JONES: Yes. But to quote, "the movement wasn't ready" to have this discussion.
BOND: No, it wasn't ready. It's not really ready now.
JONES: Amen. Amen.
BOND: Anyway, some try to make it ready. Do you have a different leadership style when you talk to groups that are black, mixed race, or all white? Are you a different person before these different groups?
JONES: Hmmm — Yes, I am. I am. I don't have occasion to speak to all black groups a lot. I go to universities like the University of Virginia here. It's a great honor to meet you, but is there a Black Students Association?
JONES: Have I met them?
JONES: And why is that? Because I come in through one particular group of people, Beth Turner, George Sampson, the people who brought me in. Their focus is the cultural sphere and they're trying to do a certain thing over here. I have to work to be on the radar of the young black students.
BOND: These places are very segregated, not by race as much as by discipline, so that the people in department A may not know people in department B or C and it's one of the tragedies I think of the modern university. It's a discussion we don't need to go into right now.
JONES: Yeah, but you ask it, though, and so, yes, when I'm working on "Fela!" and the cast is primarily black people and we're working with black artists, there is a certain kind of language, unspoken things are expressed. When I'm working with my company that is multiracial but working in the idiom of modern dance which, whatever you want to think about it, I think it's still seen as white dance.
There is another kind of way that one must speak and there's nothing like being invited to talk about Lincoln at the New York Historical Society and that room, when I looked at "A Good Man" the other night and I hope you have a chance to see this and this room is full of — I'll say it — Republicans, you know, and they were just doing — Somebody twisted their arms or they were doing some politically correct thing to have me up there, but there was — The "spirit" was not in the room. There was an iciness, but it makes me do what?
First of all, there is the — This is one which means I have no weapon, you know, how black men have to learn how to do that or there is a smile that this is designed to disarm you. No, I'm not angry at you and what's more, I am actually — I'm not going to embarrass you, right? And as a matter of fact, I will even flatter you that you've been so kind as to invite me. This is all kind of painful parody of --you talk about the different ways that you speak. I guess the middle one is supposed to be world that I came from. That was the world of the multiracial alienated artist class and we can all speak from our dissatisfaction, our locations of dissatisfaction and we can all skirt the issues like race and so on, maybe not gender anymore, because we're on another level of discourse about meaning.
BOND: Do you think that black leaders have an obligation to other black Americans? Is there a point at which that obligation ends, if you do think that? And one can pursue his or her own ambitions?
JONES: One more time please.
BOND: Do you think that black leaders have an obligation to help other black Americans?
JONES: Hmmm —
BOND: Because you're black, do you have an obligation to —
JONES: Well, I can't say what anyone has an obligation to. I've broken so many rules of obligation. I am trying to — You know, a few years ago, I was bemoaning the fact that somebody who I respect like James Levine would accept a metal or an honor from Ronald Reagan and I said that — Here I became strident. I said, "look, he's famous enough as an artist. He's has enough cache that he could turn this award down and write a New York Times article, a feature, saying why he did it and he could make the voice of an artist actually have some political clout." I said that. I had no right to say that about him. He is a wonderful artist and his feeling is, my art transcends. My art is not one to fight these battles. It's for all the ages. Maybe that's what he would say.
BOND: And maybe he was saying I'm not taking this from Ronald Reagan, I'm taking it from the President.
JONES: Okay. Right. And can he make that —
BOND: I'm not sure.
JONES: Yes. I mean, you don't believe it either, but I was lucky enough to be given the honor during the age of Mr. Obama, right? Would I have taken it from — No one offered it to me during Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Would I have taken it? I don't know, if you're hungry enough as an artist you will. Now, you're saying black leaders now.
BOND: Yes, and we're putting you in this category however you resist it.
JONES: Yeah, [laughs] right, right, right. So, yeah, this idea of — Well, I've lost the sense of the question because I'm trying to make it —
BOND: Do you have an obligation to help other African Americans and is there a point where that obligation ends that you no longer have to meet that obligation, if you think you do? Or what is help? Do I have an obligation —
BOND: Pay attention to? Listen to?
JONES: Well, I start with my family. I start with my family, those young nieces and nephews I'm talking about. His mother died of cancer, who at age 18 are now left with a mortgage, a leaking roof, and they've got to educate themselves and they've done it. They pulled together on a busboy's salary. The oldest son actually leaves school and is raising his brothers and sisters. Yeah. And for me to actually find a way to talk to them and ask what do you need, I can't — I'm not unlimitedly wealthy but I can give a little bit. I can give money and what's more, here is an older person who's listening to you and asking you, what are your plans? That's how I do it. Take care. Clean up around your own door first.
When I'm speaking in a forum like this, to try to speak candidly about what I find I share with this notion of what a black American is and how I diverge and I hope that the ears are there to hear that black people can be — We can be in disagreement. I think that helps black people.
BOND: Well, it helps us. Thank you, Bill Jones, for being with us. We appreciate it.
JONES: Thank you so much, sir. It's a pleasure.