Photo by: Sara Krulwich
Source: New York Times June 3rd, 2006
Author: Erik Piepenburg Producer
View Audio Slide Show: http://tinyurl.com/25zsab
Bill T. Jones, who choreographs young emotions in “Spring Awakening,” his first Broadway gig.
Photo by: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Original New York Times Article: http://tinyurl.com/youdsa
Author: Roslyn Sulcas
At the premiere of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s dance piece “Secret Pastures” in 1985, Mr. Zane’s parents noticed Madonna and Andy Warhol two rows behind them. Still skeptical about their son’s involvement with Mr. Jones on and off stage and the couple’s confrontational, self-revealing dances, they were nonetheless impressed. “Now you guys are beginning to get somewhere,” Mr. Zane’s father told them. “If you don’t blow it, maybe you’ll get to Broadway.”
Mr. Zane died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1988, but his father’s remark — recounted in Mr. Jones’s compelling 1995 memoir, “Last Night on Earth” — turns out to have been at least half right. Mr. Jones, whose troupe is still called Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, is nominated for a Tony Award for choreographing “Spring Awakening,” the unlikely musical about adolescent sexuality in 19th-century Germany. (The show received 10 other nominations, including best musical.)
Mr. Jones’s choreography for “Spring Awakening” creates a seamlessly integrated, vivid gestural vocabulary that gives force and life to the repressed physical urges of its teenage characters. Only their bodies, it suggests, can express those feelings, for which they have no words. In some ways it’s a perfect fit for a choreographer concerned with storytelling, the power of gesture and sexual identity.
Yet working on a mainstream musical was not an obvious move for Mr. Jones, who has always seen himself as fiercely experimental: a paid-up member of, as he puts it, “the downtown scene, whatever that means.”
“I discovered modern dance at college,” he said in an interview at the New 42nd Street Studios, where his company was rehearsing a new work a few days after the announcement of the Tony nominations. (The awards will be presented on Sunday.) “I happened to fall in with Arnie Zane, and I met Lois Welk, the founder of a modern-dance collective who helped me with my education around the avant-garde. We were rule breakers. I thought of our work as moving sculpture. That other world — Broadway, the commercial theater — was one that I didn’t have to aspire to.”
But Mr. Jones has hardly lurked on the fringes of cultural obscurity. He is about as famous as a contemporary dance choreographer can be, partly because of his willingness to place racial and sexual identity at the core of his work and partly because of his openness about his H.I.V.-positive status. (His 1994 “Still/Here,” which used video of his workshops with people living with terminal illnesses, became the focus of an incendiary debate about the boundaries of art.)
Mr. Jones, the 10th of 12 children born to migrant workers in upstate New York, is a compelling presence, a strikingly handsome man whose choreography is closely linked to his innate physical eloquence. At 55 he is still statuesque, his hair close-cropped and his face like planed marble. “Every piece of movement that he does looks like a dance,” said Jonathan Groff, one of the leading actors in “Spring Awakening,” who is also nominated for a Tony.
Like the other cast members Mr. Groff had little dance training, as Michael Mayer, the musical’s director, made clear to Mr. Jones in their first conversation. “I knew that dance wasn’t going to work in the usual way, or I would have hired a Broadway person,” said Mr. Mayer (yet another member of the nominees’ club). “Unlike most musicals,” Mr. Mayer added, “Spring Awakening” has songs that “interrupt the actions rather than continue it. So I told him I would stage the whole thing and leave empty spaces for him where the choreography needed to be.”
This was an entirely antithetical way of working for Mr. Jones, who is used to having complete control over the creative process and to spending long periods with his dancers developing a movement vocabulary for each piece. “It’s what’s called an ego check,” Mr. Jones said wryly. “I railed and bristled a little bit, and I said to Michael, ‘I don’t do dance ‘numbers.’ But after a while I thought, ‘O.K., they are numbers.’ ”
Having just collaborated off Broadway on “The Seven,” a hip-hop adaptation of Aeschylus’ “Seven Against Thebes,” Mr. Jones could draw on recent experience working with actors. “Dancers don’t question why they do something,” he said. “But actors need to understand motivation for gesture and movement. For ‘Spring Awakening,’ I was trying to find a language of rebellion, which was easier for the men than the women. How does a rebellious young woman behave physically?”
Before starting to choreograph to the music, Mr. Jones worked with the actors to develop movement that would feel natural to them. “For the song ‘The Bitch of Living,’ Bill asked us what the word bitch meant to us as young men,” Mr. Groff said. “He made us say it over and over, stand up and scream the word into his face, and see what it was doing to our bodies. Then that became the basis for the choreography. As nondancers it was so exciting to be able to express ourselves clearly in a nonverbal way.”
Nonetheless Mr. Jones often had to compromise his original ideas. “At one point I thought we’d do contact improvisation, where they would be throwing themselves against each other,” he said. “But they have high notes, articulation and timing to worry about too, and they have to be able to reproduce every effect eight times a week. I soon realized that wasn’t going to work.”
Despite the success of “Spring Awakening” Mr. Jones said he was overwhelmed by the reaction to his Tony nomination. “People I haven’t heard from since high school called,” he said. “People ask, ‘How did you get here?’ I have to think, where is ‘here’? I’ve been in contemporary dance for over 30 years, in this world for just two. But I’m very moved by my acceptance, that I am part of it. I didn’t want to care about this. I have enough to worry about. But I did, and I do.”