People Who Make NY Special

Legendary Choreographer Bill T. Jones on Ballroom, Frank Ocean, and Peking Duck

Jones has defined modern dance in NYC for half a century.

Photo by Howard Schatz/Courtesy of Bill T. Jones

From his earliest NYC performances in 1976, Bill T. Jones has revolutionized dance—blending spoken word with his choreography and daring to duet with his real-life partner in love and work, Arnie Zane. In 2019, he remains on the cutting edge of his art, developing artificial intelligence that estimates and predicts body movement with Google Creative Lab. In the years in between, he’s formed a dance company (the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company) and an arts organization (New York Live Arts), won every award under the performing arts sun, and worked with seemingly every preeminent cultural leader and artist of the past five decades in New York.

Bill T Jones
Photo courtesy of BAM/Facebook

We got in touch with Jones in advance of New York Live Arts’s daylong event, Open Spectrum: Ballroom Has Something to Say, on November 10, which includes a voguing class cotaught by Pose cast member Jason A. Rodriguez, a lecture, performance, and competition (and is one of our expert picks for November!). As always, the philosophic choreographer spoke of his art—and his favorite Peking duck in the city—with as much style and fluidity as is found in his dance.

What Should We Do: How important is ballroom to the cultural landscape today? Have you been a part of the ballroom scene personally?
Bill T. Jones: No, I have not personally been part of the ballroom scene. I do feel the ballroom scene is another answer to the question of “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” All sorts of people are able now to come forward and offer their best. This helps me be proud of what it means to be an American, a member of a democracy, and a cultural worker.

WSWD: Perhaps more than many other performing arts, ballroom intersects directly with issues of social justice. So much of your past work, too, has had social and political themes. How can dance best represent and advocate for the issues of today? What do you see as the most pressing issues to address?
Jones: Art does not have to address anything other than itself. What is beautiful about the ballroom scene is that it’s completely untamed—it is not beholden to anybody’s ideology. An issue that is pressing today is how can we live with people whom we basically disagree with. How do we develop a language of a “we” in a world that is evermore “you” against “me.” The ballroom scene is a colorful way in which that is being attempted. There seems to be a foothold now in the general culture and that is a good thing.

Bill T Jones
Photo by Gerard Gaskin/Courtesy of Bill T. Jones

I do feel the ballroom scene is another answer to the question of “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

WSWD: You’ve won two Tony Awards, a MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship, a Kennedy Center honor, and just about every award you can get in the world of performing arts. Did one mean more to you than another?
Jones: I am in no way deprived in terms of awards. It did mean a great deal to me to receive the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities from President Barack Obama.

Bill T Jones
Photo courtesy of the Obama White House/Facebook

WSWD: You have often worked with visual artists, most famously Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring. Are there any contemporary artists you admire or would want to work with? Or dream collaborators in general?
Jones: I am very much taken with the writing of Marlon James, who will be doing a “Bill Chats” with me at New York Live Arts this coming February. He’s a Jamaican gay man who writes outrageous fantasy fiction with strong gay characters. I like that very much. I’m also a big fan of the music of Frank Ocean and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar.

WSWD: What type, if any, of physical exercise do you do besides dance?
Jones: I am a retired dancer. I dance when I am very happy or very moved. In terms of exercise, I walk two miles a day, five days a week. And I work on core strengthening and stretching from yoga. And I meditate.

Bill T Jones
Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts/Facebook

I dance when I am very happy or very moved.

WSWD: The New York Live Arts headquarters is in Chelsea. Any favorite restaurants, coffee shops, or bars in the area—or anywhere in the city, really?
Jones: The best caffè mocha is at the Commons Chelsea on Seventh Avenue near 18th Street; I love the coffee there. There is a yakitori place called Yakitori Tora down on Kenmare Street, and it is really delicious. And the best Peking duck in New York is at a place in SoHo called Pinch Chinese. The chef there used to work at the great Din Tai Fung, which has the most delicious soup dumplings in the world. He has set up an outpost of his own on Prince Street and serves the best Peking duck I’ve ever had!

WSWD: Despite the excellent Peking duck, though, and your storied career based in NYC, you’ve never lived here. Why do you choose to live in the Hudson Valley instead of the city?
Jones: My home in Rockland County is the very house that Arnie Zane and I shared until he died upstairs in the bedroom in 1988. He and I lived there from 1980 until 1988. The house is a shrine to him and a monument to our commitment to each other. I have a beautiful garden. My whole life is in Manhattan, but I retreat every night and every weekend to this place that is quite beautiful and soothing to my soul.

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