By Matt Mullen
Photography Philip-Lorca diCorcia

No chapter on dance in America can be written without Bill T. Jones. He is one of his generation’s most celebrated choreographers, and one of its most visionary. Since forming the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company with his late partner in 1982, Jones has staged nearly 150 beautiful and bracing works that explore history, memory, race, sexuality, survival, and death. Along the way, he has been honored with two Tony Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, a National Medal of Arts, a MacArthur Fellowship, and dozens more major accolades.

Jones, who met Zane while studying at SUNY Binghamton, arrived in New York in the mid-1970s, a decade after the Judson Theater rewrote the rules of what dance could look like. Enmeshed in the avant-garde, and especially inspired by the postmodern idea of contact improvisation—the push-and-pull of one’s body in relationship to another—Jones and Zane set about developing their own style of movement, one that put themselves at the center of the story. Their partnership lasted until Zane’s death of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1988. The following year, Jones premiered D-Man in the Waters, the first of what would become many works that responded to the AIDS crisis. Jones’s Still/Here (1994), a meditation on mortality that incorporated the stories of terminally ill people, was in part a response to his own HIV-positive status. In more recent years, Jones has found new ways to innovate: he began choreographing and directing for musicals and opera, and has increasingly infused his dance works with multimedia and theatrical elements.

Right before the COVID pandemic began, Jones was preparing for a commission at the Park Avenue Armory called Deep Blue Sea, which was to feature a cast of 100—including Jones himself, marking the 69-year-old’s first time dancing in 15 years. When the performance was scuttled, Jones retreated to his home in Rockland County, New York. Even in those early days, the disproportionate toll the virus was taking on Black Americans was clear. Then came the murder of George Floyd, sparking a nationwide reckoning on race and justice. When the Armory invited him back for a new, socially distanced commission, Jones set about devising a work that would speak to the twin traumas of the moment. Afterwardsness (its title comes from the Freudian concept of experiencing trauma belatedly) does so with nine masked dancers and an elegiac musical score by Pauline Kim Harris. The work premiered with two private performances at the Armory last October, and will open to the public this May—one of few indoor performances to take place in New York.

The challenge of developing and mounting an original dance piece during COVID is heroic, much less for a choreographer and director for whom person-to-person contact is foundational. Fortunately, Jones is no stranger to challenges. We spoke about Afterwardsness, the past, and finding freedom in limitations.

MATT MULLEN: How are you doing, Bill?

BILL T. JONES: I’m feeling, on one level, robust. Springtime is a wonderful time. When I was a kid growing up, in upstate New York, I loved the autumn; I loved the melancholy, the feeling of something dying, something changing. As you get older, springtime becomes really important. I’m sitting at my desk, which overlooks my garden. This is a place Arnie Zane and I came to in the spring of 1980. We envisioned a garden just like the garden I’m looking at now. Life takes away—Arnie is no longer here—but it also gives back. Suddenly 30 years go by and you realize that you’re still standing, and you don’t really think about that until someone like yourself says, “How are you doing today?” And today is, without sounding too spiritual or philosophical, really all we have.

The company has gone through a series of whiplashes. As you know, we had a great opportunity to make a piece, and we premiered it in October, and we were very proud. The Armory wanted us to do it again, and then we were curtailed because three of our people tested positive for COVID. That is the stuff that makes us strong, but it’s also debilitating. There’s so much uncertainty in the life of an artist as it is, but then you take an outside consideration like this, and it further complicates. I quote this all the time, I think it’s from Keats: “Art happens when something is being pushed against.” That tests your soul.

MULLEN: I cannot imagine the immense challenge of mounting this work during COVID—logistically as well as creatively and conceptually. When you look back on your career, is this one of the biggest challenges you’ve taken on?

JONES: Try to imagine the spring of 1988: we had a season of “New Contemporary Masters” at City Center, and Arnie Zane dies on March 30. That’s a challenge. You want to stop everything, but there’s this enterprise that he loved, and that we built together. So is that the same as COVID? They’re different. What about AIDS? When D-Man in the Waters was being premiered at the Joyce Theater, Demian Acquavella—for whom the piece is named—was getting sicker and sicker. He made me promise him that he’d be on stage, and here’s a man dealing with dementia and Kaposi’s sarcoma, and I carried him on stage. How does that compare to COVID? It’s different. I don’t mean to trouble your question, but just to complicate it usefully. COVID is a large challenge. So is everything else.

MULLEN: It’s amazing to me that in March of 2020 you were preparing for one work at the Armory, and by October of 2020, you were premiering a totally different one. Take me through how Afterwardsness came together.

JONES: We left MASS MoCA in March of 2020, where we were tech-ing Deep Blue Sea. Then everything shut down. The world goes black. Fortunately I came to my garden, and the garden was very charming in those first few weeks. Janet Wong, my associate artistic director, in all her wisdom, said, “We’re going to keep our people on salary, but we should be using this as a study period.” We made them assignments: they were to study tapes of works I had performed or made for other people. So my young dancers are now isolated all over the country, literally, and working on video tapes, some of which are 30 and 40 years old. It was just a formal exercise, I didn’t know what would come of it.

Then in July we got a call from the Armory, asking if we’d make a new work. It was a no-brainer. I called Pauline Kim Harris, who is our unofficial musical director, and I told her I was thinking about Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” [1941], which was very important to me back in the 1970s, when it was enjoying something of a resurgence. She said she had a work of her own, a piece informed by what happened to George Floyd. It seemed like the universe was speaking to us and saying, “This is what you need to be doing.” So we did what we have often done, in that classic postmodern fashion: take all the elements—dance phrases that span 30 years, snatches of music, memories, the space itself—and make a work happen.

MULLEN: How did you negotiate the COVID restrictions? So much of your practice is about physical contact between dancers. In fact, contact improvisation is part of what the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company was built on.

JONES: Igor Stravinsky said something to the effect of, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.” He felt that limitations on your work were a good thing. And I think he was right. There were times I wanted to scream because the Armory was telling me things like, “There must at all times be space between the performers.” That’s already a problem for dance, but okay. “And the audience must be six feet apart.” Okay. “Oh, and the dancers must be another six feet apart from that.” So I threw tantrums regularly: “This is the death of art!” I also had this naive idea that we would be able to get away with doing it without masks. And someone said, “Oh no, no, no, you missed that, the fine print. The dancers have to have masks on.” I said, “This is an expressive medium, our faces are part of it!” But after I stopped stomping around and complaining, I saw that there was a deep and profound reality that was more than a metaphor with the masks.

MULLEN: In what way?

JONES: Until I saw the pictures in the New York Times, I was not aware what a statement it was to have one of my dancers doing material that came from another piece about stricken persons [Still/Here], holding her breast, but wearing a mask. It looked like she couldn’t breathe. That was not my intention. Now I ask myself—does that mean, so that it doesn’t become a hollow theatrical gesture, there is an expiration date on this work? Is there a date past which I would not do this work? Because I do not want to wear the masks as an affectation. This work is so close to the bone, so real, and everybody in the audience is implicated. Everybody in the audience will have to be masked, and every dancer will have to be masked. We’re in a communion. Do I betray that communion in a year, two years, when dancers are wearing it as a prop?

MULLEN: So do you see your previous works as living things that can be re-animated and re-contextualized?

JONES: The work is definitely alive. What have I learned, how would I do this differently? I am a tinkerer. For example, we’re about to go in and do tech [for Afterwardsness]. I’d like to think I’m not going to be able to get in there and tinker, because it might save myself from making mistakes. But there is always that need. This work has been a largely hands-off work; it’s had to be. Maybe that’s a good thing—a living choreographer can be a wrecking ball. People accused Balanchine of that when he remounted his great works from the ’20s and ’30s in the 1980s. They said, “Someone should stop him! He’s changing this thing!” Well, it’s his work, he can change it if he wants to. I’m not saying I have the time to do that.

MULLEN: Time and the passage of time is a motif in the piece. During the performance we hear calendar dates being read out. Did you feel like time was passing differently during the pandemic?

JONES: When you’re in the creative process, things are happening on all sorts of levels. When all my dancers were remote, we went into learning mode. Later, I began to ask them about their daily life, their routines. How does your day organize? What’s the first thing you do in the morning? How do you prepare meals? The answers were all disparate, and yet there was something similar about them. When those answers were set against this incredibly moving, near-tragic music, suddenly they were heightened. The idea became, let’s make this whole event as if it’s some diary. That theatrical conceit was actually one of the most important discoveries of the piece. It gave a spine to everything. The litany of dates had to end in October. But when we bring it back in May, does that mean we have to find a way to stretch that time out? The beat goes on, as they say.

MULLEN: So much of your work and your practice is about engaging with the past and making the argument that nothing is really over—we’re still living with the legacy of the AIDS crisis, for example. What, if any, will be the legacy of COVID on modern dance?

JONES: Well, we already know that the digital world is not going away. I hate to say that, because I run a theatre, and we’re a touring company. But it’s not going to go away. I feel it in myself. When Friday night comes around, am I rushing to go sit in a room with other people? No, I have the luxury of being able to pull into my home and be with my husband. That’s going to be a hard habit to break. That’s one thing. Never mind George Floyd. That’s big. Is the country really going through this deep and wrenching change around the issue of systemic racism? COVID and George Floyd, they’re kind of intertwined. I think historically they’re going to be interconnected. The one thing is, people have short memories, so I could be wrong. In 15 years, this might just be seen as a hiccup.

MULLEN: How much do you think about the future?

JONES: I think about my legacy a lot. Arnie Zane died in this very room that I’m sitting in. I’d love to say I’m ready for my own death. But is my company ready? What about my archive? What about Arnie’s work? What about all of these works we’ve been talking about? I’m looking at my garden again. Spring is a gift to us, because spirits like mine can become overladen with ideas like death and so on, but do you dare believe that reality is cyclical? And that it bends in a proverbial arc towards justice? I think nature says, “Look, we’re going to do what we do no matter what you do.” But I have hope.

Published: May 17, 2021

Afterwardsness, performed by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, runs May 19 through May 26, 2021 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, New York.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Bill T. Jones, 2021 © Philip-Lorca diCorcia