Bill T. Jones: There will be a bit of show business, but not that much show business.
That’s one of the first things Jones says when he steps into the bare space of 72-13 for this lecture performance. It’s a one-day event, so we’re packed to the gills: there’s even a select number of audience members who’ve been assigned seating around the borders of the stage.
This gave us something to look at while we waited for the show to begin. That and the sight of Jones’s husband, the artist Bjorn Amelan, in his Zen Buddhist robes, painting three-quarters of a circle in grey paint on the wall.
What does this symbolise? Pac-Man? Or a productivity pie chart? There’s a lot of this ambiguousness throughout this evening.
BTJ: Can you do without making and make without doing? I think you can’t make without doing, but you sure can do without making.
He describes his frustration with a Singaporean journalist who asked him what his message in creating the dance was—yet he also concedes that all artists face a dilemma over how much to reveal to an audience before a show.
Or does that Pac-Man symbol signify a life three quarters over? So much of this piece is about the perspective of an older man, struggling with the technology of getting his multimedia from a mere iPad, intensely aware of the fact that his youthful body is what made him famous, working in a field where the athleticism of the youthful body are prized above all.
Bill T Jones, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985
He’s still got it, though. After placing his specs on a stool, he demonstrates his light-footedness with a sequence of delicate footwork. But he makes it clear that his work is no longer as easy as it once was.
BTJ: Do you like poetry? You may hate it after this. Because I am going to recite a very long piece by Dylan Thomas. Let’s see if this ageing brain can keep up with my ambition.
The poem in question is The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. It’s a nautical piece from 1941, slant-rhymed quatrains, extremely sensuous and sonorous and descriptive, elevating an everyday fishing village scene to something epic.
On a first listen, it’s not clear why he’s chosen this. But now I’ve read it, I do believe it’s linked to this theme of age and time:
BTJ: Good-bye, good luck, struck the sun and the moon,
To the fisherman lost on the land.
He stands alone in the door of his home,
With his long-legged heart in his hand.
And while Jones recites the poem, he dances. It’s many of the same motions as before: tiptoeing and shoveling, negotiating his body through a human-sized rectangular metal frame. But there’s a visible tension as he keeps up with the text and the weight of the props. Yes, he’s still muscular and supple, but we’re reminded—just as in Models Never Talk—that we seldom see older bodies presented in this way.
BTJ: Technology changes. Body change. But as I said two my young dancers the other day, I want you to frighten me. I want you to frighten Singapore. Dance art should be scary. No corporation, no government be able to control it.
There’s a nervous titter that rises through the audience when he says this, because many people here are linked to SIFA’s corporate sponsors.
BTJ: I guess that is why oftentimes one is not invited back. You laugh and I smile. You laugh and I smile. Tonight in bed, I will process this moment.
He’s mingling with us now, addressing us directly, including the handsome teenager in front of me, though he admits he can’t see us without his glasses. Does he dance out of megalomania or insecurity, he asks us.
BTJ: Why can’t I dance in a closet? Why do you think, lady? I’m just messing with you.
And now comes another sequence of pure dance: a slow-dancing number to the tune of Judy Garland’s Do It Again before the audience. The choice is a deliberate tribute to the generation of gay artists who died in the ‘80s and ‘90s from AIDS.
BTJ: I usually preface this by saying this is for Arnie Zane, whom I met when I was very young and who died in my arms 17 years later. This song is for every generation that dies. What’s your World War One, Two, Korea, epidemic? I went to a lot of funerals. They were always playing Judy or Barbara.
Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane
While he’s dancing, he takes that human-sized metal frame and hands it to the front row of the audience, asking us to pass it around the room—an experiment in democracy, he says.
BTJ: Everyone has to do their part. This is a democracy, isn’t it? I’ve been told otherwise.
So this is why there were seats on stage. And it’s a wonderful moment: tension as people stand up to negotiate the corners, a gasp when someone nearly drops it.
But it works, and just as we’re feeling good about ourselves, the music ends.
BTJ: Don’t leave me.
We’re all gonna die.
We’re all gonna die.
We’re all gonna die.
And now he says a little more about working with his young dancers on A Letter / Singapore. He’s discovered that there are rules about what can and can’t be done with our national anthem: it must be sung in full, it must be sung standing and it cannot be part of a medley.
And he relates this to the shitstorm that’s broken out in the US over the football quarterback Colin Kaepernick (and now others!) kneeling in protest over the Star-Spangled Banner.
BTJ: Who has the right not to acknowledge the National Anthem?...
You’re well fed and you’re safe. Some of us don’t feel safe back there.
And now he harks back to the story of racism in the Americas, the ideas of Manifest Destiny in the 1800s when the US government decided the white man had an ineffable right to take over Indian territories.
BTJ: The struggle. I don’t think it’s stopped, has it? Somewhere in the world, someone is saying, “Stop. No.” And someone else is saying, “Might is right. No.”
He lies down in the metal frame and reads a battle scene from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian off his iPad, depicting—to my surprise—not the cruelty of the white man, but a scene of graphic resistance, as an army of natives charges against smug white soldiers, slaughtering and scalping and raping them.
He likes his texts, this man. At some point he said it might be his Black Baptist heritage.
And now a hymn, and a spotlight. He raises his arms to the sky.
BTJ: We’re almost done.
Making and doing.
I feel like I should be distilling this encounter into some kind of meaning. But that’s not the point, is it? As absurd as it is to be documenting a dance script on a blog, that’s how one experiences it, subjectively, some moments sticking in my mind more than others.
If you’re as senior and talented and charismatic as Mr Jones, you can just go on stage and present a stream-of-consciousness essay, made up of loosely linked themes.
Age and Americana. Art-making and gay activism and ethics.
And it will be good.
Worth making. Worth doing.