For choreographer Bill T. Jones, HIV was not the end, but the beginning of his art
As soon as Bill T. Jones takes to the stage, he begins singing a cappella a verse from a spiritual. He then reads from a poem and, quoting Marcel Duchamp, thanks the "breed of intellectuals who think art is primarily an intellectual activity" — by which he means those assembled.
"You’ll forgive the PBS factor," he says. "There was no reason to begin by singing except to change the chemistry of the room."
But there is also no reason to seek forgiveness. This is exactly why more than 100 people gathered at the Nasher Sculpture Center on March 20: To see Jones being himself, which is to say, one of the few true Renaissance men of the last 30 years.
From the outside, Jones has many talents. He is a published author, an in-demand public speaker, the recipient of a 1994 McArthur Foundation "genius grant" and has had a hand in countless other activities. But with all his accomplishments, Jones still sees himself, first and foremost, as the head of a dance troupe.
"Building the company, maintaining it, doing the budget — that comes before this or anything else," he said.
"The company" is the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, the troupe he founded 25 years ago with Arnie Zane — about the same time that Jones became HIV-positive.
Now 56, Jones has lived nearly half his life under the shadow of HIV, during which time he has risen to the top of the dance world. There have been times when he wondered how long he’d be around, he said, but having lived nearly a quarter century since his diagnosis has allowed him to marshal on to new challenges.
But his achievements are bittersweet, especially this week; Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of his partner in life and dance, Arnie Zane.
"Arnie Zane, a 5-foot-4 Jewish Italian, was a star, but as is often the case in homosexuals’ families, they didn’t know it until he was on his deathbed," Jones said.
He has since found love with a new companion, Bjorn, who accompanied him to the salon. But the work he began with Zane still resonates.
Jones may be the most famous example of an HIV-positive artist who turned his disease into his art.
And as with many gay and gay-friendly artists in the early years of the AIDS crisis, Jones’ work often crossed over into politics — whether he intended it to or not.
Like Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley and others, he became a lightning rod during the so-called "culture wars" of the late 1980s-early 1990s, primarily as a result of his controversial dance piece "Still/Here."
One of the most influential art works to address HIV/AIDS, Jones workshopped "Still/Here" with "actual survivors of life-threatening illnesses; they were not dancers," he said.
Jones saw the piece addressing mortality, but also proving to the nation that those suffering from AIDS were not to be pitied or ignored, but had much to offer the world.
But while "’Still/Here’ received its accolades, it started a nasty debate, too — about ‘victim art,’" Jones said.
That began after The New Yorker published a story, purported to be a review, in which the critic assailed the dance as review-proof precisely because its performers were ill. Others picked up on this, and pundits "said we blamed the world for our predicament, that we were wallowing in victimhood," Jones said.
What irritated Jones the most, though, was that the magazine critic "didn’t see the piece — she really had made a judgment without any basis. It wasn’t about the work itself. She was angry. It was outrageous."
Jones concedes of the work, "it was impossible for it to succeed, but it did not fail."
The ordeal nearly caused Jones to leave dance, but he stuck it out. The intervening years have been prolific for him. He won a 2007 Tony Award for his choreography in the groundbreaking musical "Spring Awakening," and he is now preparing perhaps his most difficult commission yet: A dance about the life of Abraham Lincoln.
Jones is clearly uncertain where this new piece will take him and how he will resolve all the issues it brings up. But he can take solace in his doubt by obeying the mantra he has led his life by.
"The only sin," Jones said, "is a failure of imagination."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 28, 2008
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