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Bill T. Jones Knows Life Will Change, and His Art Too

It's not a shock that the choreographer Bill T. Jones would be thinking about AIDS right about now.

"'This is my second plague,'" he said he told his company recently. "I know it's kind of a coarse thing to say. They're different, but they have things in common."

Yes, the circumstances of the coronavirus are different, but there's a sense that the dance world, which suffered tremendous losses during the AIDS crisis, has been through this all before.

Certainly Mr. Jones has. The choreographer, who is H.I.V. positive, experienced its devastation firsthand as Arnie Zane, his partner both in dance and life, died from AIDS in 1988. And now once again bodily contact is taboo, but as Mr. Jones sees it, the comparison to AIDS breaks down in terms of moral judgment. The coronavirus doesn't affect just one community, and we must all change o ur behavior to control it.

"Do we really want to change the way we live?" he said. "Are we willing to give up anything? Do I really need the convenience of going to a movie or a restaurant when I want to? Am I willing to have to think more about things?"

Like everyone, he has questions. But Mr. Jones, 68, a choreographer whose visceral dances have used bodies — and a diverse assortment of them — to explore and confront pain, whether physical, cultural or emotional, is looking exactly like an artist with the experience and wisdom to help others navigate the present moment.

Each Monday he meets with his company for a virtual check-in. "I try to talk them through what it was like to be living through the AIDS crisis and how many of us felt cheated," he said.

"You will be able to survive, but life will change," he said he told them, adding: "We lost a lot of people at a time when those people should have been doing what they wanted to do, which was build a future. But life went on."

Now, as then, Mr. Jones's world changed. He was dealt an artistic blow when performances of "Deep Blue Sea," conceived for the drill hall at the Park Avenue Armory, were canceled before the premiere, scheduled for April 14. Discussions are underway about staging the work, produced and developed by Park Avenue Armory in collaboration with New York Live Arts, in 2021.

In the meantime, we have these photographs of rehearsals in February, which show the breadth of his vision. In interviews before and after the shutdown, Mr. Jones, who is now at his home in Cottage Valley, N.Y., with his husband, the artist Bjorn Amel an, discussed the creative process behind the work and commented on the photos.

"They captured something about it, which helped me," Mr. Jones said as he and I looked at them together. "But of course it landed like a knife in the heart after the cancellation."

Before working on "Deep Blue Sea," Mr. Jones had spent been six years making "Analogy Trilogy," a series of evening-length, collage-type works that explored trauma and memory in language and movement. After that, he said, he felt done — at least for awhile. But the invitation from the Armory lured him back.

"The Armory is the way we used to feel about going to BAM back in the '80s," Mr. Jones said, referring to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "I thought, maybe it shoul d be a swan song. Maybe I should make one more work and, look, it can only be done in one place. Like give everything to it."

It was fitting, too; a space as expansive as the Armory required that level of intensity. For "Deep Blue Sea," Mr. Jones was inspired in part by Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" — namely the lonely character of Pip, the African-American boy who at one point is stranded at sea — along with writings by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The ambitious and personal production, a collaboration with the architect Elizabeth Diller and the projection designer Peter Nigrini, features a sonic backdrop by Nick Hallett, the music producer Hprizm and the vocalist and composer Holland Andrews. The production progresses from one dancer to 100, beginning with Mr. Jones. His solo would have been his first time performing in more than 15 years.

The solitary figure of Mr. Jones is then joined by t he Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. He calls this part "The Raft," which is also how he refers to the company; it has helped get him through impossible moments in his life, like Mr. Zane's death. The final scene introduces 89 guest performers.

The work, Mr. Jones said, is a reflection of the isolation he felt — and to an extent still does — as a black man making art in a mostly white avant-garde world. As the dance builds, it considers the idea of community within a divisive society.

"What does it mean to take this lonely, wounded apostate from the avant-garde?" he said. "What does it mean to put that person in the world? What does it look like?"

He is left, now, with more questions: "What is my art learning from Covid-19?" he said. "I don't know if I'm ready for the new normal. How does my art find the new normal?"

F or him, the expanse of the Armory was a way to show the fragility of a figure in a sea of space. "We can talk about loneliness," he said, "but how do you show it?"

Now there is a larger question that haunts him, not only as a choreographer but as the artistic director of New York Live Arts, a performance space in Manhattan. How do you make live art in the age of the coronavirus? That institution focuses on ideas concerning the body, or as Mr. Jones put it "thinking and moving."

"I feel that we're constantly trying to convince the world that there's beauty in movement," he said. "That space is an eloquent medium. That text is not always necessary."

But now, without physical proximity, what's left? "That's what I've got to find out," Mr. Jones said.

After Mr. Zane died, Mr. Jones created two large-scale works: "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" (1990), a sprawling three-hour spectacle that explored race and sexuality; and "Still/Here" (1994), a two-act production that was developed in workshops with people with life-threatening illnesses.

For Mr. Jones, "Still/Here" wasn't about AIDS; it was about survival. But in 1989, he did choreograph a dance that was more specifically tied to the AIDS epidemic: "D-Man in the Waters," which he made to celebrate the resilient spirit of Demian Acquavella, a company member who died of AIDS in 1990.

A documentary about the history and the enduring quality of "D-Man" is in the works by Rosalynde Le Blanc, another former Jones/Zane dancer, and Tom Hurwitz. As the world changes, it is turning into a film about making art in a time of plague that mirrors our own.

"Deep Blue Sea," like "D-Man," is highly physical. Contact is integral. "If you'd think about a large work, like what you saw us rehearsing in the Armory is that going to make some people gasp,' oh my God, how can they touch each other?'" he said. "How can so many strangers be touching?"

He considered the photograph in which he is held aloft by other dancers: Curled on his side with his hands wrapped around his head, he's vulnerable, delicate, defenseless. "When we were in our prime and doing contact," Mr. Jones said, referring to contact improvisation, "we were like the kamikazes — we would run in and with no mat, full on jump and roll. Boom! My lower back has still probably not forgiven me for it, but you know when you� �re young and indestructible."

Mr. Jones is no longer young. He is not indestructible. Yet in "Deep Blue Sea" he re-enters the stream of dancing bodies. "That picture says so much about what is needed for me to be there," he said. "Yes, I'm saying something about loneliness and abandonment and the water, but I've got to really give myself to them. I've got to be completely in their hands. And that's kind of beautiful."


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