Bill T. Jones is a living legend in the dance world, but he’s still pushing forward and questioning his art form.
“Every new work has to make you think, ‘Why modern dance?’” he tells me in his mellifluous voice on the phone from New York City. “Each new work has to ask, ‘What can dance do?’”
For those of you not familiar with Jones, that’s like Meryl Streep asking herself about the purpose of acting.
Jones, who has created some of the most memorable and lasting dance works ever (Still/Here, Last Supper At Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and who recently won a Tony Award for his choreography on the Broadway musical Spring Awakening, returns this week with Chapel/ Chapter, a multimedia look at society’s voyeuristic attachment to sensational news stories.
It was initially inspired by the choreographer’s frustration with the circus the Zacarias Moussaoui trial turned into. (Moussaoui was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans in connection with the 9/11 attacks.)
That trial didn’t make it into the final piece – Jones calls it “too unruly.” But there are references to serial killers, family abuse and one story, told to Jones by one of his company’s dancers, about witnessing a childhood friend’s suicide.
“That brought up questions of voyeurism, helplessness and the notion of what it means to be innocent,” says Jones.
When you look at this or any other work, he says, it’s important to watch yourself watching. The piece originated in a tiny site-specific setting, with audience members up close to the performers and able to see other viewers across from them. Although the company has had to reconfigure the work for touring purposes, Jones is happy that the Toronto production recreates the original feel.
“It’s supposed to feel like a cross between a courtroom and a sacred space,” says Jones. “Some people will be less than 10 feet away from the dance. That’s important. It’s a piece about bearing witness and maybe acknowledging our own weaknesses.”
Jones points out that the performers – who include dancers, a narrator and a singer – are not acting out the stories. The dance itself is very abstract – for a reason.
“I’m asking what modern dance can do,” he says. “When you place an abstract movement against a concrete verbal statement, the two play off each other. From the beginning of modern dance we’ve been trying to understand how movement can be heightened and crafted so it takes on more resonance.
“In this piece, two people holding each other can suddenly become a lethal embrace. You might hear something terrible but see something lovely and tender onstage.
“This is art,” he says. “This is not reportage.”