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Bill T. Jones: 'Narrative of trauma'

By Porter Anderson
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- In a conversation with Bill T. Jones these days, you're likely to encounter a phrase he finds apt -- "narrative of trauma."

On one hand, there's Jones' wistful-whiplash choreography in the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening." Steven Sater's evocation of German playwright Frank Wedekind's 1891 drama is one of the hottest tickets of the season.

Jones and director Michael Mayer blend period costume and Duncan Sheik's contemporary music to retell Wedekind's unforgiving tale of teenage sexual exploration, at many points a narrative of trauma.

On the other hand, Jones, a leading African-American figure in world art, says he sees a need "to define where the huge and romantic legacy of the civil rights struggle means we are today. There's a real problem of us being stuck now in what Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum Harlem calls the 'narrative of trauma.' "

Anything but a stranger to challenging experience, Jones is the 10th of 12 children from a migrant-worker family. He founded the internationally influential Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982 with Zane, his lover. Six years later, Zane was dead of complications from AIDS.

Jones, today in his mid-50s, not only choreographs his company's idiom of often politically resonant dance-theater but also explores his own artistry onstage. He dances a prophet's role, for example, in "Blind Date," his acclaimed evening-length meditation on American military exploits.

So coveted is a position in his Harlem-based modern-dance ensemble that a recent audition call drew 421 women and 70 men for two company openings.

And young theatergoers now wait nightly at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre's stage door on West 49th Street to glimpse actors Jonathan Groff (Melchior), John Gallagher Jr. (Moritz), Jonathan B. Wright (Hanschen), Gideon Glick (Ernst) and Lea Michele (Wendla).

Some of those fans mimic the gestural pattern they see the actors use onstage -- a hand describes a circle on the torso. Affection and desire are quickly wrapped in a new Delacroix-with-elbows motion that ends in an arm outstretched, a reach.

This is a Jones signature in the show, which opened in December to strong reviews.

"You keep moving," Jones says about the juggling act it takes to stage commercial theater and lead a prominent nonprofit dance company.

Performances are set for the Jones/Zane ensemble this spring in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Singapore.

"You know, we say that if we're English- or French- or German-speaking, we think in our mother tongue," he says.

"Well, I think that no matter what I'm doing, whether reading a book or looking at a painting, I'm translating it in terms of what I know, which is abstract gesture and movement in time. Dance is my idiom. Dance."

He gives it about two beats, in terms of the flowing, highly tactile dance movement for which he's known, and then adds, a little sheepishly: "Of course, I am working on another musical, you know. And on that one, I'm writing the book with a dramaturge, and I'm directing and choreographing. It's on the life of Fela Kuti."

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, known in world-music circles simply as Fela, was the Nigerian creator of Afrobeat His populist Marley-like political presence set him on a collision course with the military government running Lagos and prompted armed attacks on his home in the 1970s. Fela died with AIDS in 1997. Another narrative of trauma.

Demand for a new black 'narrative'

Jones wants to know why U.S. society persists in dubbing February Black History Month.

"Is the word getting out yet that some people are offended by that 'Black History Month' label?" he asks. "Maybe we should find another way to talk about it.

"I did a PBS round-table dinner, in the style of what Fred Friendly was doing in the '70s and '80s. The Smithsonian set this up, as part of the promised African-American museum plan. This panel was on the legacy of the civil rights era. I found it exciting to hear people talk about what it was like to live under Jim Crow. But I thought I would have liked to see them talk about truly the next question: What is the legacy of the civil rights movement now?"

Jones is struck by the multiplicity of experience among people of color. What are we to make of the 1960s on streets as diversely busy as those in the United States of 2007?

"And yet around this PBS round table," he says, "the women's struggle wasn't given much attention. Never mind the gay and lesbian movement, with a bastion of the community, the black church, being so conflicted over that minority. And what about the immigration issue? -- new minorities every day, fighting for rights and freedom.

"I came away thinking the romantic legacy of the 1960s, the civil rights struggle, is in some way stopping us from understanding where we are now.

"As my friend Thelma [Golden] said on the panel, we need another narrative, other than the 'narrative of trauma.'

"The world our artists today are describing is hardly a world without color," Jones says, "and yet it's a world in which there are so many more variations on what it means to be a person of color.

"But we're still dealing with Jim Crow."

'Momentum of desire'

In striking parallels, Jones' work on "Spring Awakening" addresses another "narrative of trauma" and provides a vocabulary beyond race relations.

The show has echoes of "Romeo and Juliet," with young people trying to find themselves sexually, only to be harshly handled by well-intentioned but uncomprehending adults. The musical's creative team, on Wedekind's inspiration, tackles issues advertised on precious few Broadway marquees: There's a scene of sadomasochism, for example, as well as abortion, masturbation, nudity and teen suicide.

"I have friends with children who have gone to see the show with their 14- or 15-year-olds," Jones says. "They said it was cathartic for them. They may have had 'the conversation' about sex, or maybe not yet. But onstage, they see a kind of eternal scenario: Kids, hormone-fueled, are rushing ahead of the parents' responsibility. This is a question that never goes away for modern parents."

Jones' choreographic dynamic in the show hitches itself to that "hormone-fueled" energy.

"We all remember this," he says, "that first time when your body is pressing, pressing, pressing until you get what you want. I call this the 'momentum of desire.' "

Handed by director Mayer "some big boys in a small space with a lot of furniture," Jones really has one good way to go: up. So the cast jumps, spins, wraps homework-wracked bodies around classroom-hard chairs, then jumps some more.

"And then there's this gesture," Jones says about one of his proudest accomplishments in the show. "I made it rather quickly, the circling of the breasts, the stomach, the back. It's all about sensuality. It starts with Wendla," whose relationship with schoolboy Melchior is at the story's heart, "and it spreads like a virus through the cast.

"People are ready for this, for a gesture, for the abstract," Jones says, happy to find that theater audiences follow the intent of the movement, as dance audiences are more accustomed to doing.

"I think that's very encouraging for the Broadway stage. Sometimes musical theater looks so dumb. Certainly there's room for 'A Chorus Line,' long-legged girls kicking in fishnet stockings. But I think it's something people want to move past."

And so Jones, too, moves past, on to new choreography for his company, his new stage piece on Fela and that drive to go beyond the "narrative of trauma."

"Storytelling is supreme," Jones says. "I've been reminded of that, working in theater. There's an audience now that's younger. It has fewer biases. Maybe they can go in different directions -- if we have the work there for them to see."


Bill T. Jones has choreographed Broadway's "Spring Awakening" and looks for black culture to move past "the romantic legacy of the 1960s."


• Explainer: By the numbers
• I-Report: Black in America
• Timeline: Civil rights struggle


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