Personal or political —to choreographer Bill T. Jones, it’s a false dichotomy. Since the early 1970s, Jones has been crafting dances out of his own distinct human experience. In some cases, the resulting works have been formal studies of movement and music. Other dances tackle a clear topic or narrative: Slavery and emancipation, media and technology, mortality — these are the works for which he is best known and which garner the strongest reactions. One such dance famously sparked the ire of a New York critic who refused to see the production yet wrote a lengthy essay denouncing it.
Speaking on the phone from New York last week, the 61-year-old Jones acknowledged that critics and audiences have tended to brand his work as political and social commentary, while he’s always seen himself as “a formalist and a poetic choreographer.”
“I never had an idea that I could be neutral in the world,” he explained. As a gay African-American dancer who came of age in the late 1960s and lost his partner Arnie Zane to AIDS in 1988, Jones sees his dances both as reflections of his very personal experience and of larger cultural and historical forces.
Next Wednesday, October 16, UCSB Arts & Lectures brings the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company back to Santa Barbara with a program of three works spanning 1977-2001. “Play and Play” features Zane’s fascination with photography and film and Jones’s lifelong love affair with music; the L.A.-based Calder Quartet will perform live alongside the dances. It’s a program that showcases the awesome technical prowess of the current company of nine dancers and offers a very different angle on Jones’s oeuvre from the work he last showed here in 2009: an evening-length production based on the life of Abraham Lincoln.
The earliest work on this program, “Continuous Replay,” dates back to the mid-’70s, when Jones recalled Zane spending “an entire afternoon in the gymnasium of a former girls’ club in Binghamton, working on a series of gestures inspired by his love for Lucinda Childs and his interest in karate and photography.” Out of that session came the 45 discreet movements that form the basis of this work.
“D-Man in the Waters,” premiered one year after Zane’s death, can be read as a struggle for survival against the powerful current of illness. Context aside, it’s a gorgeous work of watery metaphor and exuberant athleticism set to Mendelssohn. Jones has reworked the dance no fewer than 10 times since its original creation, every time drawing something fresh from the company.
Jones created “Spent Days out Yonder” on a commission to choreograph a work set to Mozart. As he describes it, the dance is an attempt “to find the funk in Mozart” and is built upon his own movement vocabulary; then rehearsal director (now co-artistic director) Janet Wong videotaped Jones dancing in his living room and used those recordings to set movement on the company.
“I do believe there’s such a thing as style,” Jones noted, adding that as he dances less and less, he becomes more interested in how to convey the information in his body to those who will proceed him. Those familiar with the man and his work will recognize his signature weighted elegance and nuanced articulation of spine and limbs in all of the works on this program.
Yet for Jones, dance is about so much more than stylized movement — more even than a medium through which to convey a message. At its core, he says, dance “reaffirms what makes us a community — even what makes us a democracy — because we sit down beside people who are different from ourselves and we share something.”
As fiercely intellectual as he is intuitive, Jones often editorializes his own commentary as he speaks. “I’m getting awfully grand here,” he observed, before continuing. “Art does for me what religion traditionally did; it organizes a seemingly chaotic universe. When a dance program is effective, there’s something that happens in the chemistry of the people in the room that is a good thing even after we leave the theater.”
Just who can partake in such an experience — and who gets left out — is a question Jones hasn’t forgotten. “Let’s face it,” he said. “We live in a country where there are a great many people trying to feed the family dinner for $10, and therefore a dance performance like ours is a luxury. I don’t think we should be a luxury.” Noting that he strove for years simply to provide his dancers with health insurance, and that their incomes place them just a step above “the working poor,” Jones spoke of dance as one of the “least elite, most democratic” of the arts. “At the opera,” he noted, “it’s often $350 a ticket.”
The same pride that leads Jones to emphasize his company’s relative accessibility is there when he speaks about his dances, his dancers, and even his advice to his Santa Barbara audience. “Come with people you like, and come prepared to have a good time,” he suggested. “Come prepared to look closely at the patterns, at the ever-shifting dynamics of relationships. And the music is glorious; the music will carry you if you give yourself to it.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures brings Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company to the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Wednesday, October 16, at 8 p.m. Jones will also give a free talk at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater on Monday, October 14, at 4 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.