Only a few months after he refused to perform in South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival, protesting the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse, Bill T. Jones now wants to “stay clear of polemics.” His latest work, You Walk?, which has its New York premiere July 19 at La Guardia Concert Hall, covers some of the most contentious historical developments of the New World. Why would this notoriously controversial artist choose to be apolitical, when the subject matter almost begs him to engage?
Two years ago, Jones was approached by Arena de le Sol in Bologna, Italy, to make a dance depicting the influence of Latin culture in the New World. Though confronted with issues of colonization and what Jones describes as cultural “collision,” he decided to make a poetic rather than a political response to the unjust historical truths surrounding these native communities. “Ultimately, I’m trying to enter this on the level of culture and art,” he says. “I’m trying to tell the story as I see it, and what that looked like in terms of music.”
He begins with the music of indigenous peoples from around the world (South Africans, medieval Europeans, Amazon Indians). Then he introduces music of cultures in “collision,” for which he uses Italian Jesuit Domenico Zipoli’s San Ignacio, an 18th-century South American baroque opera for Native American performers. Although Jones acknowledges the opera to be “shimmering propaganda, promoting the morality and values of the conqueror,” he also hopes the beauty of the music will transcend the oppression from which it sprang and address other questions. “Where did we find out how people really changed each other? Through dance and music.” But, he adds, “Nothing is just the dancing. Who is dancing? Where and why?”
For nearly 20 years, Jones has been the quintessential political artist and intellectual. His identity fueled much of his work; he’s a gay black man whose partner, Arnie Zane, died of AIDS five years after the two formed their dance company in 1982. He forced Americans to look at their hypocritical and racist history in Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land and pulled at emotions public and visceral in Still/Here. Audiences squirmed when he exposed a stage full of naked people. “Those pieces were trying to make a poem of my life and consciousness, not polemics. I was doing this long before there were identity politics,” he says. But his identity in America is burdened by politics. “I want to be true to my love for art, which transcends polemics, but my heart has been changed by experience. I have a lot of questions and anger about how things work. . . . They bubble up in my formal work.”
Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center and Spoleto festivals, says Jones’s work is “personally engaged in a kind of internal struggle that is singular to him. . . . I think of things burning—that’s a good metaphor for him in his twenties. Now it’s more nuanced.”
Jones now admittedly takes more careful steps. “Middle-aged people have to work against conservatizing,” he says. “I take risks, but more formal risks. They’ll want to know why it’s not more political,” he supposes. “A good artist does a brand of investigative reporting, not legislation.” Jones researched music, traveled to Brazil, deconstructed the characters in Zipoli’s opera, and set it (complete with “devil” and “angel” characters) on his diverse company of 10. The last section deals with a sense of longing connected to the search for personal identity, represented by Texas prison work songs, bluegrass blues, and Portuguese fado. Then he addresses the basic need to adapt to new environments with a 1978 recording of John Cage’s “Empty Words.” You Walk? closes with a contemporary Brazilian a cappella choral work in the Gregorian style. “Things die and something else is born,” Jones says of this hybridization. “I’m trying to express something after everything has been mixed.”
Like his identity, the work will be defined without flag-waving, finger-pointing, or dropping trou. “Politics are like my face,” he says. “When I step onstage, you can see all of these particulars. I don’t have to do more than be myself.”