Art Looking at Art with Bill T. Jones

Through their work artists can open our eyes to their way of seeing. In the first episode of this new series of interviews, we look at art through the eyes of the American choreographer, dancer, director, writer and associate artist of this year’s edition of the Holland Festival: Bill T. Jones.

What is dance?
Dance is the movement of people and things in space and time. What is choreography? It is the identification, the generation and organisation of dance materials.

I am making work for myself as a way of living in the world. Probably I am also making work for somebody who has never seen my work or maybe has never seen contemporary dance. Could I possibly know what my audience thinks and feels? I believe that if I do something with enough clarity, strength and commitment, peoples’ minds will lean in to look at it, and peoples’ hearts may open up and they identify with it. That’s all an artist can hope for.

In the past I was a much better dance audience than I am now. I loved to watch classes, take classes or read as much about dance as I could. Now because I’m older and I know more about my own taste, I am not as patient but a couple of things are happening when I’m watching a performance. First of all, what is the level of skill the choreographer has employed to get this idea or feeling across? What could that choreographer he or she or they be feeling as they made this work? If I dare follow what they’re feeling then can I find any relationship to it in myself?

I often say to people when you watch my performance or any performance, “The first thing you must do is watch yourself watching”. I do that with myself as well. Why am I now leaning forward? Why am I now thinking about dinner? Why am I now holding my breath? Why am I now getting angry? Why am I now getting sexually aroused? That’s the way I am at my best as an audience. I feel the same thing when I am at an art gallery or watching Netflix. I’m trying to think who made this? I see what they have produced but I’m wondering why did they do it? Then I’m looking for the language in it that I can either relate to or not.

For instance, we’re in a hyper-racialist time right now. On one of my Instagram accounts, New York Live Arts, I posted the text: “QUESTION EVERYTHING”. That is the question. I’m questioning what does Black Lives Matter mean in Holland right now? For the launch of the Holland Festival I did a digital drop in. We were all on Zoom and I had this feeling that I was an interloper. I had a feeling that I didn’t know why I was there. I know what we have done together, but what is Holland’s commitment to black artists? What is your commitment? What is your magazine’s commitment? Who are you talking to when you’re speaking to me? Are you speaking to a man or a black man? All of these things go into watching dance as well. Who is dancing with whom? How are they holding each other? How are they repelling each other? That is what I am doing. But that is also the way I live in the world. They’re not that different, the way that I operate in the world or the way I operate in the art world. I like them not to be.

Moby Dick
‘Deep Blue Sea’ was my newest piece to be performed at the Holland Festival but due to the coronavirus that wasn’t possible. The piece is inspired by a character from Moby Dick, Pip, a young black boy who falls overboard during the whaling expedition and finds himself alone floating in the ocean.

I was assigned to read Herman Melville’s famous book by an English teacher when I was probably 15 or 16 years old in a school in upstate New York. It was one of those required readings. I remember being intimidated by the book as it was big and thick, it had long passages about whales, long passages about whaling. Those things were hard work for me. I did not enjoy it. I was too young to understand what the metaphor the book was putting forward. No one taught me how to read metaphorically. I did not remember or understand the character of Pip. Maybe I was even embarrassed by the character of Pip.

When I read it again in later years, I’m fascinated that Melville was able to put all of that “extraneous information” into the book. Now I understand how radical the book was because of his passionate commitment to things that didn’t move the plot along. I think that is safe to say.

Recently someone from the New York Public Library asked me what was the first book you read that made you a reader? I answered, ‘Lord Of The Flies’ by William Golding. I read that as an adventure story when I was 12 years old. It was easier to read as an adventure story almost like watching a film, but there were times I was totally petrified. I didn’t know about archetypes, allegories and so on. I was ‘living’ with those boys [in the book] and trying to ask myself how would I behave? It was very difficult to see myself in Melville’s book on the Pequod [a fictional 19th-century Nantucket whaling ship in Moby Dick]. The language was so alien to me. A group of white American men decided Moby Dick was “Great American literature” and that meant I should respect it. Even when Melville writes about the black character he writes about it from the point of view of looking at something like a specimen of something. I don’t think I even understood that until many years later. That is what I was actually experiencing. It is a disjunction between me and Melville. People say Moby Dick is a book that you should read every ten years. That’s because you age. Your world changes and then the book changes. There are a number of books like that I believe.

Marcel Proust
I read ‘À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu’ when I was young choreographer working with a dance collective called the American Dance Asylum beginning of the 1980s. To make money I was working as a masseur at a Jewish community centre in a nearby town. Very few people wanted a massage so I had many hours and sit there in my white uniform reading Proust.

What draws me to Proust is that he was able to define and give the experience of obsession to you. He did that in a psychological way, a sexual way and I loved this high aesthetic premise that he was using to hold everything together. This psychological notion of memory that literary exists in our muscles and our senses, sense memory. Those things for me as a young dancer and choreographer were fascinating and important. There were also levels I couldn’t understand. I didn’t understand what the Dreyfus Affair really was or what class struggle really was.

Proust also made me feel extremely sophisticated when I read it. A white European Frenchman talking about Grand balls, countesses, duchesses and class structure. For a person whose parents were potato pickers, that was quite a world to have the door opened to and I was about to come in. This was like being invited to the ball.

Elizabeth Diller
On the original version of ‘Deep Blue Sea’, I worked with Elizabeth Diller from the architect company Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The first thing Liz told me when we started to collaborate “I do not design decors”. She saw herself as being part of the dramaturgical team. In other words she wanted all to be intersectional. That’s where she and I have the strongest collaboration because my ideas about abstraction and her ideas about abstraction sometimes clashed. I don’t think that she understood that this was not a piece about Black Lives Matter. It was a piece about something even bigger that just black people and the sadness and loneliness of being black. I think that the piece really was prophetic. The piece was trying to talk about this time that we are in right now.

Liz has a very original mind and she’s very sophisticated. We had very interesting and oftentimes conflictual conversations but ultimately I’m really grateful to have worked with her.

I Know
When it was not possible to perform ‘Deep Blue Sea’ at the Holland Festival, the organisers asked me to create an online spinoff which I called ‘I know’. The idea is to bring together an instant community and ask each person to tell me what they know from deep in their gut. What is true in the most profound level for them? The public is invited to submit a video that will become part of a video collage.

I hope ‘I know’ will be an ongoing, online event that people will participate in and they will watch the videos that other people have submitted. Thinking about reflecting and understanding what instant community is and is not. Understanding how we can be really intimate in the digital world but also we can never be truly intimate. That’s what I hope it will bring to mind for people. I hope people will have fun with it, I hope they will tell their friends about it, I hope they will come back to it twenty years from now and say, “That’s how I felt then”. I hope it becomes a document that will shed light on our era.

As-told-to story written by Thierry Somers.
Images Bill T Jones by Ruben van Leer.
Until the twentieth of June you can submit your ‘I Know’ contribution to