Bill T. Jones is an artist and mover who I’ve been enthralled with for my entire adult life. I would even say that he is one of my heroes; a kind of queer Father figure (luckily I already have a real-life queer Mother) who I’ve never been able to have a relationship with due to distance, time, reality (ha!), and his fame.
I studied his life and work rigorously during my undergraduate years. I wrote papers in the hopes of doing justice to the life behind his dances and scavenged for events where I might get to see him speak live. A little over two years ago my best friend and I snagged tickets to one such event at the 92nd St. Y. He spoke about one of his dance pieces and its companion book, Story/Time. I was so moved by his generous, graceful, and incredibly sturdy presence. I can’t remember if he kissed me on the cheek or if I kissed him at the book signing, but I remember he thanked me for my attendance at the talk and said something profound about my eyes. The living, breathing Bill T. Jones said something about the power he felt from my eyes, as an audience member. He wrote on my book “Zachary…” (I more regularly went by this–my birth name–name then) “…Intense, transform, transcend!” I could have died just at that moment.
Jones was born in a town called Bunnell, Florida. His family later migrated to upstate New York in Wayland, a town just south of Rochester, and he would soon enroll at SUNY Binghamton where so much would fall into place for him as far as dance and movement. That period was also the genesis of his profound and much discussed relationship with fellow dancer Arnie Zane. Along with some other dancers, the two lovers formed American Dance Asylum in 1973, pushing the boundaries of what modern dance was capable of, through explorations of technical form as well as navigating themes of racism, AIDS, and queer desire. Later down the line, in 1983, Zane and Jones would form The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company which has created on indelible legacy of their life and work. Arnie Zane passed away from AIDS related complications in 1988 but his name remains in the Company’s title as Jones has made it clear, repeatedly, that he is still present in the artistic process. To this day the company creates new work, usually with Jones as the “central” (for lack of a better term) choreographer. Some of his most acclaimed, and widely theorized, works include The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990) , D-Man in the Waters (1989) and Still/Here (1994), a dance piece that dramatized the living, corporeal, testimonies of people living with terminal illness.
Jones’s latest work, A Letter to my Nephew, just premiered at BAM and which will continue to be performed in other cities. I had previously watched countless Bill T. Jones pieces via archival footage or Youtube videos, but never had I seen a live choreographed performance. My ticket to see his latest was like a kind of pass to my own promised land. I was so moved by this piece, it’s hard to know where to begin. I laughed, cried, contemplated, and trembled. The title draws from the famous James Baldwin essay, A Letter to my Nephew, and synthesizes elements of modern dance and drama (a Jones staple). A Letter to my Nephew is really a love letter that also acts as a document and testimony, a pulsating, associative, melodic, and queer profession of witness and complex enduring care.
The audience is included in this intimate exchange between Jones and his nephew. The writing is projected on a canvas that the dancers alternately across stage throughout the entirety of the performance. Some of the initial writing includes references to Fort Greene, Brooklyn where BAM is located and where The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company first performed decades ago: “The neighborhood has changed…” and then “I wonder what color they think they are.” The text then moves to discussions of social unrest and current events: “Charlottesville, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas…” to name a few. We, the audience, feel implicated and involved.
The narrative surrounding Jones’s nephew, Lance T. Briggs, gradually comes into focus. Several dancers seem to personify the life of Briggs at various moments of his life. There are allusions to street happenings, friendships, turf conflicts, sex work, night clubs, addiction, romances, ballroom culture, racism, and homophobia. There are also choreographed moments of lush abstraction and almost unbearably tender intimacy. The juxtaposition of moments and memories expose, and illuminate, the tumult of what we glean to be a vibrant life that not only lives but soars. These moments, and scenes, that fashion Mr. Briggs as a kind of mythic and theological character are interspersed with song. The famous baritone Matthew Gamble sings acapella Whitney Houston hits and spiritual hymns, accentuating the space between hauntedness and rejoice, between celebration and loss.
Upon my own research, I discovered that Lance T. Briggs was in fact a dancer, much like his uncle. I was captivated by the final moments of the piece where Briggs is finally seen on video, rapping tender lyrics to his uncle. Due to illness and addiction, his life as a dancer was interrupted as he lost capabilities for athletic movement in his lower limbs. He is still healing and in recovery.
Something about the beauty and queerness of this love letter (perhaps it isn’t a literal love letter, but for my purposes I think of it as one) has me. While there are queer identities that populate the piece, and the queerness of Jones and Briggs are obvious, there’s also something more of queerness at work in the very composition of Jones’s love letter. The hybrid of artistic mediums, the ghostly presence of spirituals sung in tandem with Whitney Houston songs, and the rigor of love which Jones demonstrates to his nephew saturate a kind of queer lifeworld that echoes in the spaces between stage and ‘real life.’ Queerness asks us to devote a certain degree of loyalty, and care, to our kin. This care is rarely simple, but it is always profound, deeply communicative, and is the kind of story keeping and family making that Jones is choreographing to life.
Towards the piece’s finish, Jones writes “I look forward to more of our Sunday afternoon conversations.” He continues, “and I might hear more of your…” Like a migratory animal, or some law of light and physics, the canvas flips around and moves to another stage location… “songs.”