I don’t really remember how I came to be introduced to famed dancer, prolific choreographer, ‘Socrates of the dance world’ Bill T. Jones. I have the feeling that it was one of those moments where someone more knowledgable than I said something akin to, “you mean you DON’T know who this famous, respected influential person is? Can I come visit the rock under which you’ve been living?‘ And I probably pretended to know ALL about him.
Here is a man whose accomplishments are so far-reaching and diverse in the realms of dance, humanities, and art that it’s hard to keep track, even for someone whose brain catalogue is pretty limited to ‘keeping track of awesome dance folk in the world’. Here are a few highlights from the list:
- 1994 MacArthur Genius Grant Recipient
- 2010 Kennedy Center Honors
- 2009 inducted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Tony Award for Best Choreography for Fela! (my interview with Fela dancer, Hettie Barnhill) in 2010/ for Spring Awakening in 2007
- 140+ Dance works created within Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company since it’s founding in 1982 and recieving grants from the National Endowment for th Arts for these projects in 80,81, and 82
- Featured in 2010 on HBO’s documentary series MASTERCLASS
- Feaured as one of 22 prominent black Americans in 2008 on HBO’s The Black List
- His piece, D-Man in the Waters’ was showcased on the Emmy-award winning PBS special ‘Free to Dance’
- Published a memoir, ‘Last Night on Earth’ through Pantheon in 1995
This is just the tip of the iceberg. You get the gist. And now he can add….
2013 Recipient of the National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama
The National Medal of Arts is the highest award presented to artists and art patrons by the United States Government and is awarded to individuals or groups who “are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, support, growth , and availability of the arts in the United States”. Nominations are made annually by the American public and selected by the President.
I am amazed by several things here;
- The longevity of his career. Think for a moment that I was not even born, and wouldn’t be born for another four years after he began the company that has produced over 140 works, and is still going strong today, more than 30 years later. That is committment.
- The relevance of his career. When Alvin Ailey graced St. Louis last spring, they performed D-Man int he Waters. Top companies are still restaging his pieces even as he’s creating new ones. I thought it was a wonderful piece, by the way.
- The scope of companies he has worked with, schools he has visited, interesting ways he has included media with movement, and found a home for his dance know-how within the realm of Broadway, television, and in collaboration with artists across many genres.
To say ‘well deserved’ is to scrape at the tip of the iceberg.
His is one of my favorite interviews in ‘Masters of Movement’ -my favorite book of interviews/photography by my not-so-favorite anymore writer and photographer, Rose Eichenbaum.(Here is why she is not on top of my list any longer) What seems to come back again and again is an assured sense of action and creation but never of answers- he seems more curious with questions, especially this one posed by Eichenbaum:
“How do you know if your work makes a difference?”
“I don’t. We’re never really sure if we are moving forward, sideways, or backward. Everything is moving, so we don’t know about out progress if we are moving in relation to something else. You will never know if what you do is valid. You will never know the truth about anything. You will only know the doing. That is a daunting but liberating idea. You will only know the doing”.
I remember when I was a senior in college, I went to New York City with a few friends for some auditions. My friend John auditioned for his company and we were all oh-so-jealous. I’m pretty sure that John said you had to SING in his audition. While improvising. As if dancing set choreography isn’t nerve-wracking enough in an audition.
I’m not sure what it takes for a person to realize that they’re truly impacted the country with a vision and committment to art. How many tv specials, golden statues, beautiful works, highest honors before a person can know with certainty their work has merit? I think one must truly know they’ve MADE IT as a contributor when you can convince people to sing and dance spontaneously for you. That truly is making the world a better place- as long as it isn’t me doing the singing.