This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, an organization that's been bringing its unique combination of choreography and social critique to the forefront of the New York art world since 1983. Founded by its two namesakes, the statuesque Jones and his late partner Zane, the inimitable collective melds theater and movement to widen scope of contemporary dance.
The company, which now operates in Chelsea under the umbrella of New York Live Arts, will soon bare witness to yet another expansion of its horizons via the premiere of the New York Live Ideas program. Planned as a five-day festival of creative expression later this month, the series is a multi-disciplinary exploration of all things intellectual. Involving lectures, performance and film screenings, the event is set to occur once a year, with each iteration based on a different theme; this year's subject matter revolving around the mysterious mind of author and neurologist Oliver Sacks.
We caught up with Jones ahead of the Live Arts premiere. Scroll down for the interview and images.
The Huffington Post: What was the inspiration for the program Live Ideas?
BTJ: Well, you know I have been wanting to see New York Live Arts be a place like the 92nd Street Y. I’d like it to be a place that brings together high level music, dancing, first rate novelists and political thinkers, art makers. That’s my vision for New York Live Arts going forward.
When I met with Lawrence Weschler [guest curator for Live Ideas], we talked about the exciting cross overs happening in arts and culture and politics. I was looking for someone to curate Live Ideas and he was a bona fide intellectual with a broad interest in all things. So that’s how it started, wanting to address this cross-section of people. And then we found Oliver Sacks [the inaugural Live Ideas participant]. He has a new book coming out and he’s a figure in so many different communities. It was really a no-brainer to invite him.
HP: The Live Ideas series reminds me of the Public Theater’s Public Forum, which abides by the mantra, which I’ll paraphrase: “The best way to make people aware of Arts & Culture is to talk and talk and talk about Arts & Culture.” Do you agree?
BTJ: That’s true, but I think the sky is the limit with what you can talk about. Arts and culture connects us all in a certain way, and connects our audience, and there should be discussion around it and the things that are happening, in theater in particular -- discussion around what we are learning about in theater.
HP: In the press release, Sacks mentions that his Live Ideas will bring together music, ferns, and cephalopods, among other things. Can we expect a lot of arts-meets-science lectures?
BTJ: Don’t you just love that? I hope so. We’re really looking for strong personalities -- personalities like Mr. Sacks, who has inspired people in all sorts of realms, from medicine and beyond. We’re looking to include various communities. There is a play by Harold Kinter, "A Kind of Alaska" based on Sacks' book "Awakening," that is performed in both spoken word and sign language, along with a ballet score. Now that is arts and science in a way. It's natural for people to be interested in this cross-over.
We also want to address difficult conversations. Conversations that involve sex and violence and class and race. I think these things are best summed up by visual artists who make works that become rallying points, whether it’s around one work or several works. I want to know who are these people making these works and who is it that wants to work at the junction of these issues that I’ve listed; sex, violence and class struggle. All those are things are important to what we are doing.
HP: In your own performances, do you find yourself intrigued by the science and cognition behind the movements you’re creating?
BTJ: I’m a great fan of science and therapy, but I wouldn’t say I pay attention too much. I’m pretty intuitive in my own work. I do like to read how other people interpret dance though, because it’s more mysterious and religious to me. There is definitely something that draws scientists to study it and I enjoy hearing smart people explain the things that I don’t notice.
HP: Your also celebrating 30 years of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company this season. Congratulations!
BTJ: Yes, Hallelujah!
HP: Was there a moment when you knew that the company was becoming a major force in the dance world?
BTJ: No, I can see a moment of despair where I wasn’t sure if we would go on! But if you are asking me if there was a moment that reaffirmed in me and my people that what we were doing was right, I’d say that happens regularly, about every five years. It happens when we start thinking that we have to move to another level or get out of the place we are in. But I think that’s the nature of longevity in this world. When Arnie Zane and I were emerging choreographers we used to joke about climbing out of the primordial slime. Sometimes we weren’t sure if we were going to or just become a creature with wings and fly away instead. You have to ask yourself, Why are we doing what we are doing? Why does the next work get made?
This Joyce season, the theme is Play and Play: An Evening of Movement and Music. We quote a Jasper Johns's statement which was an answer to a question about how he made his work: “It's simple: You just take something and do something to it, and then do something else to it.” It’s hard to deny that, once you get past various blocks, that is the only way to do it. We just keep trying, using trial and error and curiosity. Once the curiosity is gone, we’re dead. I’m still curious about the future and how we can keep this going.
HP: You’ve ventured into various art realms over the years including theater and writing. Is there a project left that you haven’t done? Perhaps a collaboration you’ve always wanted to do?
BTJ: There’s plenty of stuff I have yet to do. I’m definitely a happier man than I was 10 years ago. Maybe there’s something about middle age; the mellowness of making budgets every month and trying to run a company with your name on it. You can become emotionally tired and you have to find ways to become not tired. Trying to find a natural rhythm of expansion.
There are a lot of people I would still like to work with... I have a whole infrastructure around me. It’s kind of amazing, but it’s not as simple to collaborate as it used to be. Anne Bogart [who worked on "A Rite" with Jones earlier this year] had it right -- she said when two organizations work together, they have to date and fall in love and make something out of that. But yes, there are things I would like to do, maybe film. Really I want to work with those persons who are making top works, and I want to celebrate the downtown art world. There is a huge looming constituency that goes to commercial theater, and I wonder, How can we have some of that talent influence the machinery downtown?
HP: New York Live Arts found a home in Chelsea. If you could move anywhere else in the world (outside of New York) and continue managing your various projects, where would it be?
BTJ: What a wild question! A treat place I go with my companion is in Northern Mexico. There’s nothing around us except farmers. That’s wonderful, but of course I can’t work there. My companion, who is a designer and artist, can, but I can’t bring my work or my company here. It’s just not realistic. Would I like to move to somewhere else, perhaps London? No, I like to spend time there but I wouldn’t move there. I am an American and I love living in the proximity of Manhattan. That’s where my social life and my business are -- I’m a New Yorker.