How does a genius stay smart? That's what I want to know when I dial up choreographer Bill T. Jones. At 64 the contemporary dancer and McArthur Genius award winner has been in the game awhile. He dates his New York City dance debut to 1977, which means he has four decades of professional experience lighting up the stage. But even with numerous accolades and a Tony for his choreography in Spring Awakening, does Jones struggle to maintain his genius?
"The dance, for better or worse, it's a young person's game," Jones admits. "There's constantly new blood coming into my organization. If not the dancers themselves, then the people around me. They don't tell you what it's like to one day wake up and realize you're no longer the young one. It's one of the tragic things about middle age. A lot of us still feel the world conforms to the way we understood it when we were 18,19, 20."
This reality can be a challenge, especially when working with Millennials as Jones so often does with members of his company. "They have their own questions about what I represent, and they challenge and get impatient and all those things," he says. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, Jones says dealing with people decades younger than him can bring out competitive feelings, but he adds, "You have to think back, 'Oh, this is what it felt like when my parents looked at me in a hurt way. This is what it felt like when my teachers felt I was being a real pain in the ass.' They loved me and they were patient." Patience is what Jones tries to manifest on most days.
And it's something he's had to have a lot of in the past two years when nearly half of his company left or moved on to new jobs and projects. "People had babies or decided they want to do their own work," he says. So what do you do when you have to fill the role of a dancer in less than two weeks? You learn to let go.
"Those works are very personal and it's a very formal program and they've been made on specific bodies," Jones explains. "You have to let go of the specificity of the body in your mind that you made it on." You see, when Jones choreographs a piece, he designs it with each individual company member's body, movement, and personality in mind. When someone else has to play a role originated for the person it was crafted around, Jones says, "You try to coach for revision, but you have to allow them to change things."
The Spoleto performance of "D-Man in the Waters" is an instance of one work that will take on a new form with his current company. The piece was originally created in 1989 as a response to the AIDS epidemic. Jones' partner Arnie Zane died of AIDS the year prior to "D-Man in the Waters" debut.
"That piece has within it a lot of ghosts and a lot of pain and a great legacy of strength and resistance," Jones says. 'The younger people coming into it don't remember this time. You can coach them and they can hear all the legends, but what is their relationship to life-altering struggle? Their relationship to loss? Some of them weren't born when the piece was made."
But just as a history teacher struggles to ignite students' interest in the 13 colonies, Jones works with his artistic director to inspire his company to understand the legacy of "D-Man in the Waters."
"Between the two of us, the work gets done, and I've seen them deliver quite moving performances of it," Jones says of his troupe.
It's a continual process of tug and pull, but ultimately it's what keeps dance exciting for Jones.
"You can only mimic to a certain point," he says. "You don't really want that. You want a dancer to bring that ineffable quality of inspiration themselves. So, yes, sometimes you have to let go."