black man dancing


Bill T. Jones in "The Black List" by Timothy Greenfield-SandersWhat got me to the Brooklyn Museum for First Saturdays yesterday was a conversation between choreographer Bill T. Jones and noted film critic Elvis Mitchell, of NPR fame.

Jones -- who is featured in a new exhibit, The Black List Project, by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and interviewer Mitchell -- discussed his life, Lincoln, Fela Kuti, and the role of anger in art.

Jones was a wannabe actor who, after discovering African dance through the late great Percival Borde, began his dance career at the age of 19. He went on to become a celebrated postmodern choreographer with notable commissioned works, including a project commemorating Abraham Lincoln.

Describing a scene typical of his younger days, when he flashed a man and his two young children during a performance, Jones considered the role of an artist in society:

"He ought to be running naked through the streets thumbing his nose at people. Absolutely free. But there's a conservativizing effect that comes with success. I began to ask whether I should edit myself more."

Jones urged all artists to "describe your world with as much accuracy and generosity as you can," noting that only then can you engage in a higher dialogue about issues of race, class, and gender. All too often, artists make the mistake of starting with the big picture and working backwards to the personal. They paint with too broad a brush, losing their point-of-view and failing to tap the raw material of their emotions -- namely anger, desire, and love.

"Fela! was primarily an entertainment. Work for hire," Jones said. "My producer brought the story to me and I created a show." Jones's latest production was amazingly well choreograped, scored (by Antibalas), designed, and performed -- lead actor Sahr was phenomenal and the dancers were fiery -- but it was a little too light on story.

Jones felt that imparting Fela's message was more important than being true to how he would've spoken or even behaved in certain situations. "[My producer] asked me why I wanted to translate some of the words [Fela sang] and I said because most people would not understand pidgin English."

There was more Fela to come, at a dance party pitting DJs Rich Medina and Spinna in a Fela vs. James Brown spinoff. It was a little too light on Fela, but I danced the night away all the same.

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  1. this post made me miss bklyn. *sigh*

    i heart Bill T. Jones. i was geeked to see him on the Black List. i was moved by his discussion of race & artistry.


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