Bill T. Jones: I’m Bill T. Jones. I’m artistic director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company and I’m also the artistic director of New York Live Arts.
Janet Wong: I’m Janet Wong. I’m the associate artistic director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company and also New York Live Arts.
Awam Amkpa: I’m Awam Amkpa. I’m a professor in NYU Tisch School of the Arts, as well as in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. So I gotta say- words do not actually capture the magnitude of my gratitude for being here, so… But it’s really quite an honor and there’s so much written- I’ve talked about you like if you just venture- I always said any PhD student doing research is in trouble because if you just go on YouTube, there are like hundreds and hundreds of your sessions which- and for which each one stands for its own, but I’m gonna be focusing on maybe three things. One would be, of course, a forthcoming show–
BJ: Analogy Trilogy?
AA: Yeah, yeah the Trilogy and- and the fact that it’s a unique opportunity for the audiences at Skirball to- especially the one of them is premiering, I guess–
BJ: The third section, Ambrose.
AA: Yeah! And also I was talking to Jay a little bit earlier about the six-hour format, which they just experienced with Forced Entertainment… So I just wanted to talk a little bit to hear you articulate a bit about that as a kind of a way of introducing the audiences to it because I think they need it much more in terms of- The other part I want to talk about, some of your processes and for me, my interest as a scholar of the medium, I’d love to talk about… and the third one would be what we started with Fela because I felt some of the processes had a certain universal tenor to them and one of the things people always go through is when- especially in relation to African performance art, is that people always thought that it’s one-way traffic of either the diasporic community invoking Africa and take- it’s- borrowing memories of things from Africa, but people forget the recirculation of diasporic cultural practices and their impact on African performers…
BJ: Well, that’s a rich menu and we should be dive in! Yeah, the thing I’ve been on- for better for worse, I am obsessing always about imagining this conversation and framing the conversation in the excitement we have about doing these three sections back-to-back and what people will think. If I have an audience that comes that is interested in Bill T. Jones as a social justice artist- that’s one set of expectations. If we have an one that sees Bill T. Jones the wild child, improvised, or naked gay man, all of those- that’s another one. But I would think it would be very important to say that I am very much a formalist and then I’m- in talking to my young nephew. My young nephew, who is the subject of the piece, in the center- I’m constantly explaining to him the most basic language of my field because he grew up in a world where he didn’t really understand what his Uncle Bill, who he claims to love, was really about. So, form. And I was turning it over today- driving in, does form mean the how of something? How space is used. How time is used. How gesture is used in performers. That’s one thing- form. And then, what do we mean by content? The meaning of the thing. So, many people, when they see the Analogy, which is based around three- the personalities of three individuals, two oral histories, and one quasi fictitious character- is the piece all at the service of their stories? Moises Kaufman, great director of The Laramie Project, who I’m working with on another one- he came to see, I believe it was Dora out at Montclair. Dora, the first section Dora Tramontane. And he was very, very polite. And he said, “But you know, I know these stories,” because his father was a Holocaust survivor. And I thought “Did you really see- did you really think it was about me telling another Holocaust story?” There are many more dramatic stories, many more hair-raising gory stories. What? This is rather common- Dora. It was about the personality- that person. And then you understand each one of them. Lance’s story- is it about an at-risk youth who falls down the rabbit hole of drug use, sexual abuse, and ends up an invalid? Yeah, but those stories are everywhere as well! Then Ambrose- is this about World War I? Is this about a gay love story? What is it? Well, if you read Sebald’s book, you understand that all of that’s true, but there’s something mesmerizing in the way in which it’s made. So, Sebald informed my mind and in a way, my heart about how you can take disparate elements, investigations, and then the measure of the artist is the cleverness with which you employ the formal means. So these three works, in some ways, this is a dangerous thing to say- it’s a formal exercise. At the surface of what- now we’re chasing our tail- is it the form or is it the content at the service of some human story? Some poetry? Why is it called analogy? What’s being compared? On one level, I’m giving you a whole mouthful here- one level, it’s about the way formal devices are deployed. And the intelligent viewer- and we love an intelligent viewer- is able to look at them-three of them- and see how this choreographer- these choreographers have used and reused certain devices. At the same token, are you listening to how the choreographer hears these stories? And where is the blues in it? Where is the uplift in it? Where are the intractable philosophical questions? And why is the world so difficult? Why is it so fucked up? And what is beautiful? Over the holiday, out in New Mexico with my art world friends, as time goes on, there are- it’s more of the OJ Simpson effect. Maybe you don’t know that- there was a time when we thought those of us who came from the counterculture- we could talk about anything! You’re white people, black people, we’re not our bodies! But then we found something happened with OJ. We had to stop talking because it was too dangerous. Because I- when they sat across the table from me and I sat across the table from them, and it’s something we’re going through as well, there are things that are just we- we like each other, we love each other- we can’t talk around this. But there- I remember one of the persons who should have known better said, “Well, what is your creed?” because this is a high-art conversation. Art about art, right? And I said, “Well, you know, art about art- it can be masturbatory.” I- don’t get me wrong, I like masturbation, but they said “What is your creed?” I said “I’m interested in beauty and justice!” Okay, that’s the content of- on one level of all my work. The Analogy has one- I can’t look anymore. I can’t look directly at my creed. I’m almost being led by the form! How do I tell the story of a German- I mean a Jewish woman, French Jewish woman, who was 19 when the war started, and her memory is already beginning to leave her? And I love her! How can I just allow her story to speak? But it’s got to speak through the devices that I have with my collaborator, Janet Wong. My nephew- this is the other black gay man in this huge tribe whose life has been really made a mess of. Who was at fault? That’s a whole other question… And ultimately everything is white America is the reason for everything? Or is the parents too much? It’s more about… how does he and I really talk? Is that what it’s about? An intergenerational conversation? The third one- Seabald is a great artist! What is there that made me interested in his words? Those things- the sexuality of the protagonist, this idea of a German manservant- a Jewish young man who is servicing? Susan Sontag says she thinks the whole books are a great acccounting of the destruction in the 20th century. How all of those things- so that’s- once again, form and content chase each other in the Analogy Trilogy.
JW: Yeah and the sum of the parts- I always find interesting, as you- you’re immersed in the making of it in the studio every day. You look at the things closely. But then, at the end of the process, finally when we- when we see part one, two, and three back to back. Last- was it last summer? When I first got to see it? I was struck by all the things that were not said, but that are revealed. I think the choices we make, the choices that those people make. You know, we just lay the content out with no commentary. That’s not our style, I guess- to comment on someone’s choice on how it became this and that- But somehow, by the end of the evening, by the end of the three evenings- we did in three different separate evenings… Something else revealed itself to me, which I hope the audience will find, you know, their own revelations…
AA: I like the word revelations. But for me, this describes the way I understand art because I was trained firstly in Nigeria. I worked with the playwright Wole Soyinka. I was his assistant for many years. I still work with him. And he’s Fela’s cousin! And he- he was struggling to articulate what you just said, intellectually. And he couldn’t- so he just started using his plays to actually articulate it. And training with him- we had to get out of the classroom, going to traditional performances, where you had to be- it’s formalistic. Really form- because you have to look- to get into the form, you’re kind of somewhat initiated into the way of being in the world by this community. And what happened there is- the best word to use for it is “divination”. Because the form is what defines the meaning. So, the repetition, the patterns, structures, the rhythm, and stuff… So the best way to- for me, teaching students at Tisch School of the Arts, it takes a long time for the students to get it because they are overwhelmed by everyday life. They’re overwhelmed even- so they create a- there’s a separation between the techniques they’re learning and how to deal with everyday life. They don’t see the connections for–
BJ: So a young African might not have that problem. Are these forms closer to a young African than they are to an NYU student…?
AA: For me, I joined NYU some 18 years ago now, where I had to learn how to communicate what you just said to students! I had to tell them about ideas of rhythm, the ideas of structures, the revelations that comes through repetition and so on. And also the body being put in situations that are extraordinary, in order to reveal a story–
BJ: And now I have to make a shameful confession that I have such great respect for time-honored forms. And do I dare say traditional societies? I’m a follower of John Cage! And it chants so little! And the classic postmodern, I think you must know something about postmodern dance-
AA: Yes, of course!
BJ: Problem-solving- ask the question, now go look for a way to solve it! This isn’t starting with there is a drum… we all recognize that this is- this means birth, this means death. We have so much freedom that we can make up our form. So what I am- the divination- look at me! I’m doing your job! Can I trust my form as a tool of divination as those traditional forms? I don’t know!
AA: I mean, I think so! I’ve seen your works both in live performance and on videos, and I think they do! For me, actually when I first saw your work, I think somewhere in North Hampton in Massachusetts- there’s a show in one of the big halls there… And I kept thinking, “Oh my God! I just saw something similar to the kind of stories I would see in Africa!”
BJ: I wonder what the piece was-
AA: I can’t remember now-
BJ: -well it’s not so important–
AA: it was a while ago in the nineties–
BJ: So you weren’t interested- you weren’t concerned about an arbitrary relationship of form to content? Or the elements are often held together by indeterminate means…
AA: Yeah, so the content resides in the form. So, there is a relationship between the spectator and the performer. And that relationship actually puts the audience in this way of discovery, captivated by the body telling stories in such fascinating ways, right? Very formal. So you begin to look for the form, for the story. That’s why I call it divination because it’s like the product of the relationship between the performer and the spectator–
BJ: Now thank you for the generosity of that. I want to encourage me to accept what the gentleman is saying because what we have this- what we- what I was taught was, “Unless you can throw off any- one meaning, you are trapped!” Therefore, we were taught in this task-based, the culture, of the modern or postmodern, that it has to defeat meaning. Now, defeat meaning- like what? For what purpose? Now John Cage, he would say, “Happy New Year’s!” It’s all about the new. It’s all about discovering something you didn’t know…
JW: Now how do you reconcile this love of John Cage and postmodern strategies with the decide to tell a story, a narrative?
BJ: Yeah that’s why I’m so excited about The Analogy. I don’t know if I have been able to- my job is to do- make the problem, put it out there, craft it as well as possible with you, make it as handsome as possible, like a meal that was prepared. Not was it a meal prepared by a person who was blindfolded? And who didn’t taste the food? In some ways, we’ve been taught that- the piece with Annie. I shouldn’t mention it- this wonderful peace is being informed by algorithms! Literally that performers are singing what a computer is coming up with. Did they taste it beforehand? Or they just put it out there and trust it? Now the result is intriguing to me, but it would be very difficult for me to tell somebody why they want to watch this. Dora’s story, as a woman who was the age of many of my dancers- when the story starts, she’s the age of some of my dancers. I thought already that’s very interesting. Dora, this Jewish- French Jewish woman- the persons we hear telling her stories, sometimes are black people! Now maybe that’s no longer of relevance- I don’t know how the NYU community will feel about it, but I thought that’s news! That we’ve now come to a point where the universal- this is back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin era concerns- Can a black voice in America have a universal ability? A universal vibration? And so that’s what I thought part of the news was. People were going to be encountering their prejudices, they were going to have to fight against all their social conditioning. Now, I’m not so sure. So, I have a lot of questions myself! I know I enjoy it formally. I know I enjoy looking at it. Now, telling a story do I want it to break your heart in places? Yes I do, you know?
JW: And the story is really about storytelling as not nonlinear. It is in many ways linear and, except for Sebald, who in his focus, you know, goes back and forth in time. And maybe the kind of postmodern strategies we impose on it- meaning when we tell the story, we’re not creating a scene. Most of the time, you do not see one-on-one correlation between character and narrative and dance. We’re not dancing- performing the scene for you.
BJ: We’re not doing pantomime. Although we could. Since we are purveyors of forms, and we throw them together and take them apart, we could. There are times we say, “Marcel Marceau” and our actor actually looks as if he is doing Marcel Marceau. But it’s just a moment we pass through…
JW: And sometimes we go closer to seeing it and sometimes we purposely go far, far away from the storytelling.
AA: But I’ll come back to what you said earlier about revelation. When crafting the story- those moments of revelation, what did they feel like?
JW: Well when crafting the story–
BJ: You mean working on the texts–
BJ: But then we really are thinking like playwrights aren’t we? We are.
JW: Because Bjorn Amelan, who’s Bill’s husband, and the son of Dora, who was also the set designer, spent one summer transcribing many, many hours of this oral history that was done in what, 2002?
BJ: I think… the oral history was done for her sons, you probably have read this–
BJ: I was concerned. She was aging and she was telling these stories and I was going to make a gift to them of their mother going through, what we thought was going to be every year of the war. But of course, it was never that many… so what were you getting at?
JW: What was I getting at? Well, delving into the transcript and trying to make sense of the thing that memory does- do you remember this and that? She would jump back and forth and trying to make sense of that story was a huge task for us. And there are so many juicy anecdotes that we had to throw out because there wasn’t enough time and it always leads out another window that doesn’t help us towards the end, towards the goal, if there’s such a thing. I don’t- I can’t tell what was being revealed when we were working intensely on it, but later on, looking at- looking at the story that we’ve told, makes me want to be a better person.
BJ: And she goes to the heart of it. Although I would say, also, we were trying to- in your domain as a maker of theater- what is good storytelling? What, from the work I’ve done in the commercial theater, and I know sitting with people around the writing-table… what information does the audience need and when? If you want us to care about this person, who is she? Well some of that is the way I ask the questions of Dora. There’s an oral history. But then we did decide, you know- her mother, her father, the death of her mother. There were many anecdotes. But which ones are going to be the breadcrumbs and lead the audience with us. So we were trying to, in some ways, use a classic technique of telling a linear story. Now that’s how we start. A piece like Lance, it was very difficult to get my nephew to be linear. And he had- for whatever way his brain works, it’s very difficult to just report simply what happens. Therefore he would say things that would fragment, and we would be like, “I think he means this!” And let’s take all this page of words and make it into a sentence. And now where is it going? It’s nightmare, after nightmare- some of the funny and then okay… well what’s the point of it? Is he completely dysfunctional? Okay… Janet and Adrian, who was our dramaturg, said “I don’t want him to be a trainwreck. He has dreams, so find them!” Going through pages of him, talking, double-talking… “Oh, he wants to make this piece for LGBT- his own piece for LGBT youth!” “Alright, well that’s the place we could get to!” We want to get to him actually still trying to achieve something- literally a conversation where- and I don’t know! We didn’t make this up, did we? And I say to him, “I want to make a piece about a man who’s saving his life through art.” And he says, “Yes! And me too!” You know? So I literally spoon-fed him a solution. So, we are trying to make sense of it- emotional sense of it. Sebald- we almost work the other way. We tell the story as much as we can as narrative, and then we wanted it to evaporate. We wanted the story to evaporate and when story evaporates, the singing, dancing, physicality comes to the fore. And it ends in that way. Yes.
AA: I’m fascinated by- because for me, it’s what you’re all doing actually is really I feel- there’s a generational thing with especially training younger people. I was curious to know what your nephew’s age was because the culture or the process by which they acquire information and express themselves- like I seem to be seeing differences because they’re heavily influenced by television and telling stories and episodes and stuff like that but having difficulty understanding linear structures and so on. It’s almost like they’re thinking in an algorithm and historic- is that anywhere? And it’s almost like what happens with video games really. I’m fascinated by that- it’s a cultural shift that’s almost getting universal because most almost every country you go to, you’ll find young people are computer literate but they don’t understand that literacy which with which all the forms of stories were written.
BJ: Well once again, you’re being very generous. And also you’re instructive because my nephew- my nephew, when I started this, was in his 40s. But he had an emotional development I think of a 17- 18 year old because maybe it was something about who he is, but drug use at a very early age. And a life that was not really- he’s an intelligent man, but a life that was not about honing his ability to think. And that is something he wants to catch up on now- how to read a paragraph- now what did you read? And he oftentimes cannot play that back. Now is that a brain problem? Or is that, as you generously say, it’s a generational situation, which may be in fact operating, but what does one do with that? Then it becomes about his Uncle Bill using this information to make Uncle Bill’s work, which has its own moral ramifications and all, but it’s also what else can I, what else can I do? You know, it’s about my work.
JW: When we were making Lance Pt. 2, the conversation between the uncle and nephew- he was in the hospital bed the whole time. He was fighting for his life, literally. Now he’s okay, he has survived. But we permitted the piece in 2016- we thought- we were thinking- we hope he lived till the work premieres, at least, and he did!
BJ: He was not a- if I can use this term, a normal person. He doesn’t like to- I even challenge him, because when I wanted him to be disciplined, you know, “Are you a special case?!” “No, I’m not a special case!” But as time goes on, I realized, my brother, “You are a special case!” You literally have to learn how to read again, you have to literally learn how to encounter a word and then go look it up…
JW: And you forced him–
BJ: Still doing–
JW: You know, listening to some of the transcripts- to the recordings, we listened- Bill would record all the phone conversations and would transcribe them and I listen sometimes and go, “Oh my god, Bill stop pushing! He’s in the hospital!” And they’re talking of hospice, he’s literally dying, and Bill’s pushing him, “Have you written that song down?!” Literally! And I thought after, by the time we premiered the piece, “Maybe making this work saved his life…”
BJ: He says he wanted to do that!
JW: He wanted to do that! But literally, he has something to look forward to and there was a song that was written from his hospital–
BJ: Literally the night before he went into surgery, where they told us that he might have a 50/50 percent chance of living, I said, you know, “I know this is what an artist does. Right now- what is it like right now? Can you really- rather than the dream about the future or agonize about the past- where are you? And he wrote something called, “This is My Life”. And we sent it to him the day he’s going into surgery, you know. On this question of this because you know, I’m looking at your kind face and I feel like I’m always in some sort of courtroom against myself- I am. And I’m thinking “When a person is that ill, should you expect them to produce?” First if they tell you that they are able to do that and that they want to do that, yes! But I think Arnie Zane- I know that there’s a piece that we brought- we did an evening for Arnie Zane last year- last spring, right? And this piece- he literally was making this piece from his bed at home! And this is where I got the idea- from Arnie. Literally so unwell, but he had Janet Lili on the side and he’d tell her try this movement, try that- in bed! You know? And throwing what- he was a maker! That’s the standard for me. Now you know, some people can do it!
AA: Right I think it’s still part of that whole framework of divinations because it’s like when people go to the church, you know? It’s also the form of the presentation is what makes people discover different aspects of their humanity and I think part of that–
BJ: Now, you’re speaking the makers or the audience?
AA: Both, but well- first the audience, actually. But I’ll talk about makers… but for the maker is also, the form really- that’s why I don’t usually- because sometimes form and content is such a false divide! Because what constitutes the form is really part of the content, and the form takes you to an extraordinary space of using language through bodies, through performance, and so on. And I keep thinking about what it does for the person performing, but also what it does for the person watching–
BJ: The form–
AA: The form! Because that’s where I believe strongly- what you said the examples you gave- I believe strongly in, when they were doing it they were also defining the limits of their own humanity! They’re looking even beyond it! They may even be in that Twilight Zone. But it’s so healing- it’s like peeling off so many–
JW: Healing, you said?
BJ: My challenge to my nephew, “Write it down, nephew, write it down!” It’s a brutal- it was brutal but you know, I thought that art making was brutal! I mean it can be anything you want it to be, but I thought, there are times when it should literally be terrifying. Now, is that a romantic notion…?
JW: No and I think it was important, like I said, I think that saved his life, that kept him alive! Snd I felt like I was eavesdropping… I’m listening to the fight- it’s very very personal and the ritual of uncle and nephew talking to one another is important. Something to look forward to. And then you held him accountable because we called him- Bill calls him, “the escape artist”, as part of the title-
AA: That moment though, between you and him, it’s an amazing moment right? That moment of you provoke him, prod him, seeking this and so on. And his response- I’m even going beyond his response to you, to touching something else- that moment is so significant in everyone’s- I’ve seen so many artists do that. And that’s why I keep using the word divination because it does have a kind of spiritual dimension to it? Because you’re going beyond the limits of the material into the realms of something else that even language fails you–
BJ: I would say that- this is very interesting, see, I think I can imagine in a parallel universe, he has embraced evermore the fact that he’s a Christian. And that he has God- and could God have saved his life? I think- and nephew if you ever hear this tape, I think it is a shortcut. But that’s not for me to say! So you can always say, “I’m in the hand of God, Uncle!” I don’t- I don’t- I’ll get whether or not- I said, “No, you are an artist. You’re in your own hands, your legacy. What do you want to leave?” You know, all those words, which is- I guess legacy is ego driven, isn’t it? He could have said, “My religion, my god!” But he allowed me to say, “You say you’re an artist, you want to be in this club? Well I’m your life coach.” I’m gonna say, “Even if you are literally dying and you’re able to, you have to strive.” Well he obviously let me do that and he’s still alive and the work is being shown this- this weekend!
AA: Well you know, I saw one of your tapes- you were talking about- I think it’s in Chicago? You talked to- somebody was asking you- I think the questioner was focusing on your vocal inflections and kept saying you sounded like a dad, or her pastor. This was in Chicago and she was- I was fascinated by your response–
BJ: Humanities Festival, wasn’t it?
AA: Yeah, yeah! And you said something like, “You had the infrastructure-
BJ: …of a southern baptist…
AA: -without the faith…”
AA: And I was thinking about it. That was really a very eloquent summation- well even those people who’ve claimed they have the faith- they actually have the infrastructure and the faith is that elusive thing they’re searching for. So it’s- but you’ve just said, when you said, “You have the infrastructure…” I thought they would just say, “Yes, that’s all we have! We’re always looking for faith through the replay, a remake- a remaking of that infrastructure.” Because I see that in religious events- that even the preacher is looking for faith through the infrastructure of performance, you know. And I think you just put it out there- that that’s what I do, I have it!
BJ: And this is what makes me an African-American. I will use- John Cage was an Irish American– You can think and can look at the people- they use their their ethnicity, their background, there’s a language that you get with that. And I embrace that. I say that my mother’s voice- my mother’s praying taught me something about public expression, you know? Now my mother’s voice, of course, was formed in the black church, in a black community. My voice- other than our home, was formed in middle-class white and the white avant-garde. And so I was always doing this thing, which I though half the people in the room didn’t understand what I’m doing, you know? How did the writer from the New Yorker– who I never like to say her name, but she was saying, “And he always works himself into a tizzy!” Literally, “He works himself into a tizzy!” You know–
AA: Thats a good way to–
BJ: Does she understand anything about the African-American prophetic tradition, you know? And could she see the infrastructure that has informed me and make room for it as an aesthetic strategy you know?
AA: I really- I kept thinking about it- it kept interrupting my thinking when I was thinking about coming to talk to you about this infrastructure on faith and even as you were giving the example of your nephew or Arnie I could see that. That what happened, say when the performer is kind of invoking all elements of the infrastructure, to touch faith, you know? And I think that’s the healing part of performance.
BJ: I think it’s probably relevant right now to talk about things that spun out, for instance, my nephew- his infrastructure is informed, yes, by the church. But when he was a child growing up, his father was growing pot in the yard, his father was a drug addict, my sister was involved for reasons I don’t want to go into with this man, so… and my nephew’s ideas were shaped by television, pop music. So when he tries to draw on those things and he says “I’m a songwriter!” Okay, well what are the songs? Songs sound like things you hear on the radio- rhythm and blues… He said, “Okay! That’s what it is? Bring it out!” Let’s not try to make you Duke Ellington or Arnold Schoenberg or anybody like that so… and therefore musical choices in the pieces were informed by the, if you will, the infrastructure. And I think infrastructure and memory play the same thing? When in the first section with Dora, why are we singing Parlez-Moi, La Mort? Because when she was a young girl, that was one of the songs that moved her in France. Why is there Schubert music? Well that’s the creator’s- “Schubert has a meaning, the songs move the creator.”- Bill T Jones. So that, and her memory of pop music in her age, back in her era back in the 1920s/30s, informs the music there. Let’s not forget the composer, Nick Hallett. He has his own taste. My nephew- rhythm and blues, club dancing, gay culture, all those things… when I can get it out of him, how do you hear this? That’s why I wanted him to write his songs. That mixes with his uncle and Nick Hallett and Janet Wong- you actually also reflect. And then Sebald was, in a way in terms of music, Seabald was–
JW: Well, Nick Hallett would probably tell you- our composer would tell you that the part three is when Schubert culminates and becomes and comes forth. And actually he wrote- Nick wrote a whole song cycle, I guess, in response to the text, but also in response to this revelation again of Schubert. Schubert has been through all three pieces.
AA: Well, one other thing I notice is how you retell stories. I mean ideas as one story-
BJ: In this piece Analogy or in general?
AA: In general, yeah, because I always felt it wasn’t- it’s not so much about telling her story. but you also retell stories and you bring unusual stories together–
BJ: Can you give me an example?
AA: I’m just thinking of most of your shows, including this one, if you look at, say, the three parts, right? You almost think that instinctively people think, “Why are they together?” Right? But it makes sense together, so it’s- and I see that in other works you’ve done as well where even stories that people are familiar with, becomes unfamiliar because of the way you tell it. And that retelling for me is a really interesting way of getting the spectator involved in the piece.
BJ: Thank you, thank you again. I thought that what I was taught- I thought that what I was taught- that’s awkward. I am a real student of art practice- modernist art practice. I have- my husband companion, is an artist, and I watch him make marks. And I watch him find repetition. I have- I love the work of Jasper Johns. I have been interested in how artists can do- what do you mean this is a series you’ve made? What is a triptych? What is a diptych? I’m looking at these two abstract- a Kline- Franz Kline? Okay, they go together, but what do I see? The colors go together. So I began to try to think about- now what you call the story, I think you- we mean the same thing- is what are the- what does repetition do? Reading Proust, back in the seventies when I should have been, you know, handing out towels and doing massages at the Jewish Community Center- I’m reading the Recherche right? You know. And why is he repeating this idea about Madame Guermantes? Why is it- why is this coming back now? Oh I see! He’s now- he has the image in his mind of a cathedral! And this anecdote and this one are like rooms in the cathedral! And now I get it. And now he has to repeat this because this is the the latticework or the buttresses. Yeah that’s what I thought. Oh that’s what the big boys do, big boys and girls do. Repetition is structure and- Now John Cage says, “Ah! Go blow it all up! You should not be doing architecture, you should be doing something else!” Which was important as well to hear… John Cage is really scary because he takes away everything like that- about what good composition is- and he says good composition is, well the more an artist gets out of his work, the more room there is for others to get into it. And he said taste is the enemy. Get past your tastes. Well then where am I if I get past my tastes? So I have had to pull and push with my notion of modernism- New York school. And it’s something- Estella’s voice, looking for God. What you called the divination, right? I could say I’m crazy and I’m not a nice person sometimes, but I still believe in Revelation. And I still believe the heart can open up unexpectedly, and I still believe there is a mystery that is all of our legacy. That we can all share in it.
AA: There’s something- I think because I think about this all the time- it’s about the process of fragmentation. What happens when you were talking about taste, or even values, and how first of all, in order to understand those values or even those moral codes, one has to understand it properly, so that one can properly fragment it, and then put it back together. so you find–
BJ: I feel there’s a recrimination in there! Before you can break the rules, you must understand the rules–
AA: Yes, you should! It’s more- it’s more efficient when one understands what one wants to change. So what happens is that fragmentation and reassemblage becomes almost like a muscle that you find in when artists–
BJ: Bravo! That’s wonderful- “like a muscle…” Well you know, I’m going through this conversation, I hope that we’re gonna get to watch it because I’m- it’s where I live right now. I got a message the other day from a woman who happens to have been my girlfriend one summer… when I was 18 years old… and working for a summer work program with teenagers- they were my age! But, she and I had a relationship. And she wrote to the other day saying, “NPR has done the 100 most important novels!” And she was so glad to see that Another Country was on there and that I was the one that they had interviewed to bring James Baldwin’s Another Country. And I thought, “I wanted to do Seabald, but they insisted that since I’m the black, gay writer, I should do…” Okay, good. And I love the novel- but it made me feel- what she was saying- I said, “Well, you know, you compliment me on that, but do you realize it’s really- it’s at odds with my youthful jingoism about ‘turn on, tune in, drop out…’ or ‘all you need is love’.” That’s when she said, “Well I don’t know where you’re getting that from… well my parents you know, at that time, we were dealing with prison reform and inequality!” And I thought, “Well, I was a callow youth!” Yes, what I had was the knowledge that a Black American has. I had that, but did I have it in the way that now we understand it? What it means- the prison industrial complex? What equity is? The whole question of “me too” with women and so on? Did I have that? She credits me with having been at the level of Baldwin, but at that time I wanted to be wild like all the white kids! I wanted to go to Woodstock! I wanted to say, “You’re not this body, don’t let anybody tell you that you’re- that you are your black body or you’ve got free eastern religion….” All of those things- so I didn’t learn the structure really. Not as- well I went to university, but I was barely paying attention-
JW: Is that an unconscious thing, maybe? Because Bill likes to talk about- Bill and Arnie’s work- people would comment on it back then even then- “They are rebelling against the patriarchal society with their gay dance!” Bill said, “We’re just trying to be fierce…”
BJ: Right! And the counterculture had told us, “No one can tell you who you are. No one can tell you how you use your body.” No one- They just go do! “Go do, dear! Be free!” Now- unconscious? We- in just expressing who we were- we were already positing a question against the society, you know?
AA: That breaks things, so–
JW: You can hide, but you put it on stage. You can go hide your relationship, but you put it on stage, you performed it–
BJ: Yes and we were interested in German- in structuralism, formalism, you know? For all these kind of pretentious reasons, you know? But we were interested in it- and independent film! We were like making it all work together and somehow out of it an artistic sensibility grows. I don’t envy your job! Teaching a university of people who feel that they don’t have to know anything… right? Which is what we felt… and you don’t have to know. Just do.
AA: Well it’s both exciting and scary- excited in the sense that I go to class every day- I’m teaching a course now called Theaters of the Black Atlantic. And the old principle- it’s a counter culture to what we’ll know as European Modernism. And I remember the last class, one of the kids- it was a black kid was going through her own identity issues now, said to me, “You know we spent the first two weeks looking at modernity and modernism… when are we going to talk about the Africans?” So, we didn’t there–
BJ: But I can see where she’s going… why do you feel this has got to be the foundation?
AA: Exactly exactly! And I kept thinking, “How can I teach them- it’s a counterculture. If they don’t understand what the culture is…” Yeah and there was this impatience, which on one hand I admired, but as the professor who must–
BJ: So what do you do, how do you pull them back without oppressing them- without not hearing their voices?
AA: That’s the part that I was excited that I have a job I can do this at- but at the same time I was frustrated. It just took me off my game. But I took time out, I said “Alright, let’s take a break now!” And then we came back, we moved forward, but that’s a time constant. And that you find- I mean I spent like almost a semester fixating on what rhythm means to students training to be performers and it’s so abstract! It’s the vibrations or when I say text is not stable, it vibrates. But then when they do, their enthusiasm blows everyone up! You know?
BJ: But when they do…?
AA: When they get- when they get it- when they get it -they just go crazy! Really good crazy! I also show them works- your work and others, and I think I know talking about your work is different from the way people see your work and I think we’re lucky that you keep producing because sometimes we would have just stopped producing and focused on the legacy of what they’ve done of up to a moment, but what I keep seeing is how your work keeps opening up keeps even fragmenting some of the basics of what you had done before! And then putting them back together in a different form–
BJ: I don’t know how- you can appreciate how much- I appreciate hearing what you’re thinking because I’m in the grip of middle-age doubt. I’ve been living in it probably for most of the time that we’ve been working together because when you’re young, it’s just doing. And it just comes out of you. Then you have successes, you get some criticism, and you start- this doubt sets in. What keeps you going forward? Now that’s its own thing- particularly in a world where there’s a thing called the “business of art”. You know, people want your success! They want you to reproduce it. And then there is this question of “Why make a new work?” Why? What are you doing? Is it habit, you know? And that is- that’s mysterious! Why make the next work? So yeah- yeah. I have tried- and I have tried not to- I went to Lincoln Center the other night. Now this is- Wynton Marsalis and I are having a new friendship. I would daresay that Wynton doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as progress in art. It was kind of shocking that he believes that you have found a classic form, it’s a big band form, there are giants in it, there are rules, now make works, make work, makes work… and I’ve kept saying to him, “Does he think about blowing up the cathedral ever?” To my mind, he doesn’t… and hearing him talk about it- he doesn’t. I don’t think that he is so interested in the quote “new”. I don’t think he thinks he’s making a classical art form, you know? And I called Bjorn the other night after seeing his concert and hearing a PPD afterwards- wonderfully everything is accomplished! He’s first-rate mind, except I thought, “Oh my God! I think this is not- where I- what I believe in art.” And when I start talking about what I believe about the “new”, he looked at me… “You poor naive thing… don’t you know everything’s been done? Don’t you know that there isn’t- there is- that’s just the Emperor’s new clothes? Look at this place- what we’re doing- New York Live Arts!” You know, what is it? What are the best and the brightest at age twenty three, four, five, and six believing right now? Do we still believe you can incubate- are we trying to incubate new ideas?
BJ: Ideas… well the Analogy Trilogy is an artist in mid-career making his best effort to move forward for himself, or his partner, and for his company. It gets kind of scary when you’re out there against somebody who effortlessly at age 25-26 or young women- we saw this happen at this chocolate factory? That piece? That was oh-
JW: Yeah, yeah.
BJ: I mean, sometimes I feel like Wagner- no. Verdi hearing Wagner, you know that story? How it made him go into a depression… because he thought that he could not- this guy was doing this thing that he felt that he had missed the boat and he should just retire. I don’t think he did- didn’t he go on to write a book or something? But it was he was depressed when he saw this young turk come along, you know?
AA: I mean you- I’ve heard that especially in your collaboration relationship with Marsalis- the whole idea is almost that what happens when some people want to kind of keep status and then somebody wants to move it?
BJ: Well, he says he’s a brave torch! He says, “We cannot drop this torch they lay-” he says, “I’m a custodian. These cats made me the custodian of this form you know–”
JW: He has a responsibility–
AA: Yeah to hold her to it–
BJ: Yeah and I say, “But isn’t the responsibility in jazz is supposed to be constantly blowing things up and moving forward?”
JW: There are other people doing it, maybe.
AA: Yeah well it’s a new variation I guess. But I think so strongly about it because it relates so closely to the next question I have for you which relates to Fela as well- because here was a guy who trained as a classical composer at Trinity School of Music, and then he went through this crisis where he felt- high life music or dance music and so on, he had to come to the United States to discover soul music, the Black Panthers, and so on, before the whole idea of Afrobeat became coherent and-
BJ: Also didn’t his mother say, “Fela make the music of your people- people can understand. Make it so the market women can understand!” That was like a road to Damascus kind of moment. Have I had one? I want the angel to come! I want to fall down in the dirt and say, “I see the light now!” I mean, she does that for me regularly when she tells me to have heart. Excuse me I gotta–
JW: Yeah we’ve got five minutes left–
AA: I bring it up because again, in my head, speaking African languages and English- it’s like rapid translation of ideas. Well, you do that with- when the dance is the language and you are translating ideas for the spectators and so on- but one of the things that about when people want hold on to stuff- there’s an African saying that what you hold on to too tightly is not good for your arms. You gotta open it a little bit so you can hold it better. So what happens there is what happened to Fela and what your production did because–
BJ: So, then what did you think Fela held on too tightly to something?
AA: Fela actually taught my generation, growing up in the 80s in Nigeria, taught my generation that tradition can be tyrannical. So understand it only so you can expand it.
BJ: Now tradition- and this is where it gets- when we did, we were doing those, doing anniversaries of pieces bringing them back, and he said, you know, “Why are you doing repertory?” He said I said the same thing to Merce Cunningham, “Why are you still making dances like Merce Cunningham?” This is an empersario who used to be– outside Paris, and it was almost like, you know- I thought, “So is mature style the same thing as tradition?” And is it also this? And that’s what depressed me the other night as we work to codify our style- the way we move. Will Deep Blue Sea which is the next work be a radical departure on a movement level, on a conceptual level? What will be radical? And is that Bill T Jones’s aged body will be back out on the stage again doing what he does with young dancers? Now I think from what people tell me that they find that intriguing to see me with people who could be my grandchildren… I never wanted to be there… so this is a question. I understand we can say it about tradition, but an artist- we’ve been taught that all of these people had late styles and now they’re applauded for their mature style. But when you’re there doing that and your Young Turks are saying, “I know they did it to Matiss… Oh he’s lost it…” You know he was something back in 1920 earlier, but here it is 1940 and what’s he doing, you know? It’s decadent, it’s what have you. I think I feel that sometimes from my community, and being here in this position as artistic director, you know, can they see me as part of that community, you know? And that’s because our dear friend Sam Miller, an empersario, very important, passed away. There was a memorial for him this past weekend. And the list of people who volunteered their time to be there, of course, we were on it, and I feel kind of self- am I- we that one kept saying the email today and seeing how people talk- we- is there a we? I ask that question downstairs here about seven, six years ago when we were when the merger between Dance Theater Workshop and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company happened I said, “Well, what is the we?” Because everyone kept saying, “Oh the downtown community”… as if we were all of a piece- and that is actually- to be accepted into it, is almost its own code of honor. And I still don’t understand the answer. I don’t know if- I like to have the respect and love of my colleagues, but who are my colleagues, you know?
AA: But late style is a good- there’s a famous book by Edward Saeed printed and published posthumously- because when he was dying he started working on the- on a few- he was fixated with Beethoven–
BJ: Really? The end of his life…
AA: Yeah he was fixated by- Beethoven went through this moment of late style and he- what he defined as late style is when artists work to a certain level of maturity where they begin to fragment all those kind of–
BJ: The Große Fuge!
AA: Yeah and they do it audaciously- they do it- you keep thinking, “What’s wrong with them? They’re breaking down everything! that we’ve built schools on!” You know- and that late style becomes it’s almost like that once you- on one hand you’re scared, but on the other hand, it’s like what are they going to do? This is me boldly contesting all the stuff that I’ve built all these years and I’m looking for another direction so-
BJ: This is almost the opposite to live fast die young, isn’t it? May you live old then go through the doldrums and come out on the other side!
AA: Yes! May you live may you live long to be able to let the grip–
BJ: Relax the grip. Make a list of that–
JW: Relax the grip–
AA: Because it takes a lot to just say, “Okay, let it go!”
JW: That’s different from what you were saying about the tyranny of tradition–
AA: Right- because tradition can make it so comforting- it’s so reassuring I mean–
BJ: Particularly if you’ve mastered it. If you’ve never mastered it- like you’re trying to get your young students- and like I never did when I was their age- then it’s another story. But if you have mastered it–
AA: Then it becomes this very- it almost makes the older person a stronger radical than the younger person.