'A Thing Called Human Hope': Bill T. Jones on Trauma, Endurance and the Democracy of Dance

By Joanna Dee Das
Assistant Professor of Dance
Washington University

Bill T. Jones is a world-renowned choreographer and dancer who is receiving this year’s International Humanities Medal from Washington University. Jones was born in 1952 in Bunnell, Florida, and began dancing as an undergraduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton. There, he met Arnie Zane, who would be his companion and collaborator until Zane’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1988. In 1982, Jones and Zane formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, which has consistently performed work that focuses on social issues about race, gender, sexuality, illness, death and dying, and historical memory. Notable evening-length works include Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990), Still/Here (1994), and Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray (2009). In addition serving as artistic director for his company, Jones has choreographed for two Broadway musicals, Spring Awakening (2007), and FELA! (2010). He received the Tony Award for Best Choreography for both. He has also won a MacArthur “Genius” Award, the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of the Arts, among several other prestigious awards. His memoir, Last Night on Earth, was published by Pantheon Books in 1995. Below, Jones discusses the evening-length dance his company is performing at UMSL’s Touhill Center September 30-October 1, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, and the role of dance in forging a more humanistic democracy.


Can you tell me about the piece you are bringing to St. Louis, Dora: Tramontane?
It is the first part of a trilogy called Analogy. I’ve made a lot of different works, and sometimes at this point in your career as an artist, you ask yourself, “Why am I making another work? Where’s my real interest?”

I’ve always been a great reader. So I began to read a book called The Emigrants by a wonderful German writer, W.G. Sebald. It’s a remarkable collection of four stories about people who have undergone something traumatic in their lives. And many of them on the surface appeared to have forgotten it. Every one of the characters actually has a tragic ending. I love that book, and I thought I was going to stage that book. But I realized that I didn’t really understand something about it.

Bill T. Jones with Shoa survivor Dora Amelan, who inspired him to create <i>Analogy/Dora: Tramontane.</i> Photo courtesy Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.Around that time, I had done oral history with my companion Bjorn Amelan’s mother, a Jewish woman born in 1920, and I realized that her own story had a lot of the same kind of historical overlap and point of view. She was 19 years old when the Germans marched into Belgium, where her family was living in Antwerp. Her mother had cancer. She tells harrowing stories of running through deserted streets in Antwerp, with blackouts, trying to get laudanum to ease her mother’s pain.

She told me about her life: where her name comes from, her mother’s death, her moving with her sisters to the south of France, where the Vichy government was installed. You know Vichy was supposedly the free part of France after the Germans took over France. She describes these holding camps that she was working in. She was part of an organization called OSE, Organization to Save the Children [Oeuvre de secours aux enfants], in the holding camps in the south of France. There were two camps, Rivesaltes and Gurs, and these were camps where the Vichy government, in conjunction with the Nazis, put people who were considered to be against the Hitler regime. And, of course, they were against the Hitler regime.

She tells these stories with great distance, great discretion. She’s a lovely woman who loves a good glass of wine. She considers me her third son. She has Bjorn Guil Amelan, her oldest boy, who is my companion. Her next son is Roni Amelan, and she says that Bill T. Jones is her third son, her adopted son. I’m very moved by that.

So, I made this oral history for my companion and his brother, knowing there would be a time when her voice would be quieted. I was reading this Sebald novel and feeling overwhelmed. I said to myself, “Why don’t you make something a little more personal?” And that’s when I began to think about her oral history, about how to take my interest in literature and bring it back to the love for my dance company. It was a wonderful experiment. The dancers read her text. There are only two voices — her voice and my voice. I distributed the parts throughout the company. It has this kaleidoscopic sort of immediacy, a bit bizarre, because they’re not really actors. They’re doing very complex things sometimes while text is being told. Everyone speaks holding a microphone. We don’t try to hide it. You see one person hand it to another. And so suddenly Dora has become an African-American woman. A moment ago, she was a Chinese woman, she was a young white woman. This is my whole idea: the democratic nature of our performance. I have been practicing that my whole life.

Why am I doing this? Because I am what we once called a post-modern choreographer. We are the generation who came after Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and José Limón. We were asking all of these questions such as: What is narrative? What is storytelling? What is the role of the artist, the person onstage, in relationship to the audience? These things are still being asked now.

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company performs <i>Analogy/Dora: Tramontane.</i> Jones says, "There’s something about this older Jewish woman’s story being told by a Hispanic person, a black person, a white person, a Chinese person. We are behaving as if we’re completely blind to the differences between her ethnicity and ours, but the audience can see."In several of your works, you engage in questions about history’s relationship to the present. How do you see the connections between Dora’s story and what’s happening today?
First and foremost, I am a formalist, and I’m always asking people to look at artistic form. And while they’re looking at artistic form, I say: “Ask yourself, ‘What are you experiencing as you’re looking?’”

We spend a lot of time now thinking about racial and sexual identity. There’s something about this older Jewish woman’s story being told by a Hispanic person, a black person, a white person, a Chinese person. We are behaving as if we’re completely blind to the differences between her ethnicity and ours, but the audience can see. It says something about how we’ve traveled — that I, as a black American, could be telling a Jewish woman’s story in such a free way. That’s a positive thing. But, then, the story is about repression, about anti-Semitism, about running for your life in the face of authority. These issues are with us very much now. Always now. What is redeeming is that there’s a stage of young beautiful bodies there that are saying to us, “Yes, there is horror in the world. There is racism. There is sexism. There are all these things. But there’s a thing called beauty, and there’s a thing called human hope." And I think that this work is ultimately a work about a kind of hope. It’s saying: Dora lived through this.

Dora said there were two kinds of people: those who need help and those who give help. And she swore — and truly she practiced this her whole life — that she would be in the second group, those who gave help. And then there is this notion that people are basically good. She tells harrowing stories of the Gestapo on the train checking her passport. They could have snatched her off the train, but somebody at that moment didn’t see a young Jewish girl; he saw a young girl alone. This man’s heart softened, and he let her go. Dora believes that people are basically good. It is something we need to hear in the time of Ferguson, in the time of, you name it — what’s happened in Baton Rouge, the war in Iraq, ISIS. Dora has just received the Légion d’Honneur, the highest award from the French government, for the work she did saving the children during the Second World War. This history is very alive right now. It’s very important to hear the senior voices. And in particular one that is telling us to have courage, have faith, as Dora does in this piece.

“Yes, there is horror in the world. There is racism. There is sexism. There are all these things. But there’s a thing called beauty, and there’s a thing called human hope." And I think that this work is ultimately a work about a kind of hope. It’s saying: Dora lived through this." — Bill T. Jones

What do you think that dance adds to this story?
Well, I don’t know about adding to it, but it is a choice. That is my medium. I am an artist, and this movement is my medium. I’m always asking the question, “What can movement do?” I want an audience to come and say, “Let’s see what this guy is making.” Because I construct. I construct the bodies, sound, light, text. I think that it adds a level of intellectual engagement. Dora’s story is not a complicated narrative, and it certainly isn’t one of the most harrowing narratives from the Holocaust. You’re hearing a narrative, but you’re seeing it performed in a way that is like a puzzle. I think this is very good for the mind. Dance still has that power to transcend narrative. We’re doing this counter-intuitive thing. This abstract dance is happening, but you’re hearing a very clear narrative. The audience has got to get in there with us, work those muscles of association and imagination, which I think is always good for people, and come up with their own reconstruction of it.

Let me tell you a short story about this question of why dance. We were doing another program at a prison in upstate New York called Fishkill Correctional Facility. It’s a minimum-security prison. At the beginning of the performance, two of the women dancers walk into the audience and each extends her hand and takes the hand of one of the prisoners, walks him out onto the floor, and walks around the floor with him and chats with him. It was a very powerful moment that heightened everything. We were suddenly all people, but we were not people all in the same circumstance. Some of us were going to be able to leave that locked-up facility; some of us were not. The dance brought a sense of life and availability and possibility to them. During a really wonderful question and answer session after, one man said, “I’m going to meet with my parole officer, and they’re going to ask me why was it important I come and see this today.” And I said, “I think that figuring out dance, what dance is, takes some thinking about what I’m supposed to be feeling as I’m watching it. Tell your parole officer that this was good for your participation in a democracy.”

In a democracy, so much is coming at you that you do not understand, as you can feel in this presidential election. As a good citizen, however, you have to figure it out. Looking at dance, which is sometimes so exotic to people, is understanding how to live with other bodies in this world. I feel that way about dance. It has that power to make you re-think thinking, re-think looking. Re-think your own body.

One paradox of dance is that many people see dance as this “exotic” form, as you said, and yet it’s ultimately the most familiar thing to a person: moving your body.
It is. When you see So You Think You Can Dance or you see a Beyoncé concert, sex is very big. We all think we understand that, but we also think, “Oh, well that is not for me. That is for them. That’s for me to look.” My dance is not about someone trying to seduce you or sell you a product. It’s asking you to look at this instrument that we all share. We all share these same arms and legs. But look at the way those arms and legs are organized. Why would that be done? We all know that there are big people and small people. But look — there’s a small person lifting a big person in this world of dance. And, yes, dancing can be exotic. It can be balletic, with double turns and amazing feats. Or it can be walking across the floor, sitting down, standing up. Pedestrian activities. This is the hallmark of the generation that I come from. Pedestrian activities are on the same continuum of a grand jété. But the choreographer makes the language out of them. That’s where the question comes in. What is this language at the service of? Now that’s what makes me fascinated with dance. There are all sorts of bodies and all sorts of movement, but what is the language that I can make that speaks to something that is beyond words?

Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you, and please let your readers know that I’m honored by this award. My company’s excited to be returning to St. Louis. I have a long history in that town, going back to the beginning of the 1980s, when I was coming there more regularly than I have been in the last 20 years. We really look forward to sopping up the atmosphere.