Bill T. Jones Celebrates the Joy of Oliver Sacks

A multimedia tribute to the polymath Awakenings author

Bill T. Jones could not be busier this week. His 30-year-old ensemble, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, just opened "Play and Play," a two-week season at the Joyce, studded with new and repurposed dances, many set to live music by the Orion String Quartet. Another new work, based on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and made in collaboration with Anne Bogart and her SITI company, is touring, and Jones himself is taking meetings toward a big Broadway musical based on the film Super Fly, which he's on deck to direct and choreograph.

But on Jones's front burner right now is the first iteration of Live Ideas, an event designed to expand the audience of his company's new headquarters on West 19th Street, bringing into its sleek theater "people who don't ordinarily go to dance spaces," according to humanities czar Lawrence Weschler, whom Jones recruited to curate "The Worlds of Oliver Sacks," a five-day festival set to open on April 17.

Jones's troupe, on the hunt for headquarters in the city, bailed out the 45-year-old Dance Theater Workshop two years ago, retiring its debt while acquiring office and studio space there. The new organization has been renamed New York Live Arts, though it's sometimes sarcastically referenced by insiders as "Bill T.W."; Jones is executive artistic director and "senior thought leader." Next month they depart from their usual mission—the nurturing of emerging artists—to celebrate the polymath Dr. Sacks on the eve of his 80th birthday. Sacks is still practicing medicine and publishing his neurological thrillers (in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, as well as between hard covers) at an age when most of his contemporaries have packed it in.

Planning the first of what are projected to be annual humanities festivals are Jones himself and Weschler, author of many nonfiction classics and a longtime friend of Sacks. Jones and Weschler, born just two days apart in 1952, met last year at a dinner at the home of Jenette Kahn, the former president of DC Comics and Mad magazine and now a movie producer. Weschler, a very busy guy with diverse interests that nearly rival those of his favorite scientist, agreed to helm the festival only if he could do exactly what he wanted, which was to focus on Sacks and "the embodied mind." Weschler says Jones "wanted to explore the intellectual underpinnings of body work: body politic, body and soul." The choreographer had read several of Sacks's books, and was especially taken with his essay on autistic animal scientist Temple Grandin.

"It's going to be pretty terrific," says Weschler, who revels in designing festivals that fuse the arts, humanities, and other subjects; formerly the artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, he's now doing similar work at NYU. He befriended Sacks, whom he calls a "clinical ontologist," in the 1970s, during Sacks's days as "a complete recluse"—before the publication of the physician's second book, Awakenings, which chronicles the impact of the drug L-dopa on an asylum full of "frozen," nearly comatose people. Weschler calls the book a "strange, silent masterpiece"; it inspired the Oscar-nominated 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. The questions Sacks tends to lead with in his clinical work, says Weschler, are "How are you? What is it like to be you?" His instinct is to treat the patient, the human being, rather than merely curing a disease.

A much larger and more multidisciplinary project than the usual run of dance activities scheduled in New York Live Arts' spaces, the festival feels like an ocean liner steaming into a cove usually occupied by rowboats. Sacks himself is a serious swimmer and rower who lived for years on City Island and swam under the Throgs Neck Bridge; he has said he does his best thinking in the water. He has wide-ranging and evolving interests, and Weschler's intention is to celebrate them all, including his early experiments with hallucinogens (chronicled in his latest book, Hallucinations). An avid motorcyclist in his youth, Sacks once held the record for a speeding ticket, coming off San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge at 122 mph, says Weschler. He's currently an artist-in-residence at Columbia, supported by a grant from a British supermarket magnate.

Now living in Greenwich Village, Sacks himself will grace several sessions of the festival, including a keynote conversation between him and Jones, moderated by Weschler, on opening day; a screening, on Saturday morning, of a British television documentary on Awakenings; and a Sunday-evening session in which the good doctor and Radiolab's Robert Krulwich will explore Sacks's early years.

Performances Thursday through Sunday appear under the rubric Re: Awakenings; each is paired with a screening of a new film by Bill Morrison, a master at repurposing ancient film stock, who has transformed a six-hour trove of Sacks's original Super-8 footage of his comatose patients waking up after decades of immobility into a lyrical 15-minute version scored by Philip Glass. The dance component includes a new work by choreographer Donna Uchizono, based on material in Awakenings. Original plans called for the piece to feature Mikhail Baryshnikov, but the great danseur-turned-producer had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts. So Uchizono herself will perform the work, which she calls Out of Frame, "because [Sacks's subjects] are a little out of frame from what is deemed normal perception. They were sleeping for years; L-dopa brought them out of it, but it had so many challenges and side effects. It's heartbreaking."

Uchizono will also perform her 1999 piece State of Heads, reworked for a quartet. "We're changing some of it to emphasize the Sacksian characteristics, the things he talks about. My physical vocabulary lends itself to those ideas." She drew inspiration from a comment from one of Sacks's patients, who had a habit of stopping dead while traveling across a room: "It's not as simple as it looks. I don't just come to a halt; I'm still going, but now I have run out of space to move in. . . . "

Other dance elements in the festival include a ballet score by Tobias Picker, played by the Orchestra of St. Luke's, accompanying a solo dance performance by Daniel Hay-Gordon choreographed by Aletta Collins, and a panel called "Minding the Dancing Body," at which philosophers Colin McGinn and Alva Noë will discuss the intellectual foundations of dance with Jones and choreographer Miguel Gutierrez.

Sacks, says Weschler, "turned out to be extremely important in the revolution that happened at Gallaudet [the country's leading university serving deaf and hard-of-hearing students] 25 years ago, when they tried to hire a president who didn't speak American Sign Language: Oliver chronicled that for The New York Review of Books." So Weschler has programmed Harold Pinter's play A Kind of Alaska to be performed on April 20 and 21. Based on Sacks's work, it appears in two versions: the Atlantic Theater Company production with actors who speak, directed by Karen Kohlhaas, and another rendered entirely in ASL, directed by Kim Weild. "If you're going to do a sign-language version of the Pinter play, you have to translate it. I didn't want supertitles: the audience of hearing people should be able to focus on how beautiful the sign language is."

Festival sessions run five full days, and include panels on weight lifting, exercise, and long-distance swimming (all Sacks passions); disembodiedness; musicophilia and music therapy; ferns, cycads, and cephalopods (he was an old-fashioned botanist); chemistry (his original intellectual playground); stereoscopy; writing; neurology; and the Tourette's, Parkinson's, and deaf communities, all of which regard him as a hero. Plans are also afoot to live-stream keynote sessions at newyorklivearts.org, and all of them will be recorded.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, through April 7, Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

Live Ideas: The Worlds of Oliver Sacks, April 17–21, New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street, newyorklivearts.org/liveideas

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