Marking the 20th anniversary of the Michael Douglas Foundation Visiting Artist Program this week, world-renowned choreographer, artist, dancer and theater director Bill T. Jones visited UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance to give an insightful lecture about his career and development as an artist.
Bill T. Jones has received remarkable honors ranging from a 1994 MacArthur “Genius” Award to Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. Named “An Irreplaceable Dance Treasure” by the Dance Heritage Coalition in 2000, he was later inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2009. His ventures into Broadway theater resulted in a 2010 Tony Award for Best Choreography in the critically acclaimed FELA!, as well as a 2007 Tony Award for Best Choreography in Spring Awakening. It is safe to say that Jones has made his mark on the dance community.
“When I heard that Bill T. Jones was coming to UCSB I was very excited,” Kalani Hicks, a third-year Dance and Environmental Studies double major said in an interview via email. “The Theater and Dance Department sets up amazing opportunities for its students to see the works of and interact with accomplished artists, and his visit is one of the many amazing presentations we get to see this year.”
On Oct. 14, many people from the Santa Barbara community, as well as UCSB students, gathered at the Hatlen Theater to listen to Jones’ eye-opening discussion. Before the doors of the Hatlen Theater opened, many eagerly waited for the moment they could be let into the theater. Once it was time, seats filled quickly and the audience was bustling with excitement.
Risa Brainin, the Chair of the Department of Theater and Dance, welcomed the audience to the event. She started by asking, “So why Bill Jones?” Before she had time to explain, a woman in the second row shouted, “Why not, he’s brilliant!” The crowd laughed and Brainin agreed, proceeding to talk about her unique acting experiences with Jones during and after her college years. After several minutes, she welcomed Jones to the stage.
A tall, muscular man appeared from the black curtains on the left side of the stage. Although he was clearly sophisticated and refined, I could tell that his spirit was young and lively. His Buddy Holly-like glasses and wide smile lit up the room as he walked out onto the center of the stage, electrified with a strong sense of confidence and power.
Some people stood up while applauding his presence. Although kindly acknowledging the applause, he did not say a word. Instead, he began to sing. I did not recognize the song, but it was exhilarating to hear. The audience did not make a sound, and I knew they were as compelled by Jones as I was. After about a minute of this, with a crowd almost breathless, Jones explained that singing “opens up the heart,” making him feel comfortable and relaxed.
This feeling seemed to sink into the audience. “I especially loved when he began his presentation by singing; it definitely set a fun and exciting atmosphere,” Hicks said.
Jones began by bringing up an event that had happened to him the night before. He explained that he was out to dinner and the restaurant was constructed in a way that made him feel like he was inside a fish bowl. Inside, people were having regular day-to-day conversations about things such as business and family matters. However, outside this restaurant, Jones noticed people on the streets: Homeless people begging for money, trouble-makers questioning authority … Jones described the strong presence he felt of a gap within society: A gap between successful members of society, and members who, as stated by Jones, “go down the rabbit hole.”
To Jones, this is integral to his work as an artist. His choreography aims to close that gap. He described artists as “the freest among us,” being able to come together despite differences in class, gender, race and sexual preference. He also made a point of saying that we are all one, that we must understand ourselves and our relation with the world to help us grow as a community.
He explained two distinct lines that he recognizes humans living by: A vertical line and a horizontal line. The vertical line is abiding to externally-imposed structure — for instance growing up Christian in a family of Christians. On the contrary, the horizontal line illustrates breaking out of that norm and reaching out to other members of the community in order to gain a sense of identity. Jones explained that dance, and his style of choreography, can be a part of that horizontal line.
“I love[d] to see where he finds inspiration and how he translates that into a moving, visual art,” Hicks said in response to this point.
I noticed the stage was lit with a tinge of blue light highlighting a tall stool, a small table with a glass of water on top and a music stand. The stool, however, remained untouched throughout the entire lecture. Jones stood and spoke, moving from one side of the stage to the other, actively engaged with the audience.
Furthermore, Jones talked about his upcoming performance entitled Play and Play: an evening of movement and music, as performed by the Arnie Zane Dance Company under his artistic direction. The event took place last night at the Granada Theatre and was presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures.
To conclude the discussion, Jones did the same thing that he did to begin it. Once again the audience was captivated by his strong singing voice, and when he was done, he received another standing ovation. Members from the audience came up one by one to ask him questions and make comments.
With his singing, dancing and great power of speech, Jones proved to all of us that he really is a multitalented artist.
Check back next week for a review of Play and Play, the exciting collaborate between Bill T. Jones and the Arnie Zane Dance Company as performed at the Granada Theatre.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of Thursday October 17th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.