There are few men as accomplished as choreographer, dancer, and artistic director Bill T. Jones, who cofounded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with his late partner in 1982. A double Tony winner (choreography for Fela! and Spring Awakening), Jones garnered a MacArthur Genius Award and, in 2014, a National Medal of Arts. He’s collaborated with and choreographed for the top dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to the Berlin Opera Ballet, and he’s worked with other artists including Toni Morrison, Jessye Norman, and Keith Haring. Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith helped fund Jones’s $11 million Broadway production of Fela! based on the life of Fela Kuti, the embattled creator of Afrobeat.
“I’ve never made what I would consider overtly political statements in my work,” Jones told us in 1999. “Any statements I made were the result of my answering urgent questions for myself.” Do not mistake that for being apolitical. His works — including Still/Here, an early meditation on AIDS and death — provoke introspection and consternation as only true artistry can.
The Advocate: Tell me about being body-painted by Keith Haring for these incredible photos.
Bill T. Jones: I think it was 1983, '84, something like that, and it was a time when Keith was the “It” boy in the art world. At one time, Keith might have been on five international art publications at the same time. He and I had become friends ... [and] he had done a poster for my company’s work at the City Center called Social Intercourse. I came into his studio one day and I saw a magazine with a very handsome man — I think he was Portuguese or Spanish — body-painted from the waist up, and Keith said, “You know, I want to do you as well.” And somewhere we agreed it was going to be the whole body.
It happened in London?
He was going to be in England at … a very famous, I daresay, notorious, gallery, Robert Fraser Gallery. Robert Fraser had been a bad boy in the swinging London period and [busted for drugs with] the Rolling Stones. He had a gallery that would invite Keith Haring to come … and he was asked to do this body painting. It was kind of exciting. [Tseng] Kwong Chi was taking photos, Arnie Zane was making a video, and then Keith casually mentioned, “By the way, the press is coming.” I’m going to be standing there stark naked in front of a room full of … British tabloids.
You don’t look nervous in the photos.
You know, we were fearless.
Did you imagine when you were young that you’d have the country’s most popular musicians supporting you?
Ha! I started out as a young wannabe actor at age 19 at State University of New York at Binghamton. And after that lived in Amsterdam, New York with my first companion Arnie Zane, the man that I was with until he died in my arms 17 years later. So we went through a lot of things, but we were art snobs. Our patron saints were [Roy] Lichtenstein and Alice B. Toklas and Picasso and James Baldwin. Those people, we aspired to be like. But no, we didn’t think about pop music.
When a gay critic wrote about your HIV status without permission, people thought you would always be seen as a black HIV-positive artist.
Oh, yeah, that was the attitude. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands now, of articles about me, in relationship to my gayness, in relationship to HIV, and it is a struggle just to be seen as a first-rate artist rather than be seen as social symbol.
Bill T. Jones (third from left) with his Fela! patrons Beyoncé, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jay-Z, and Will Smith
You grew up in upstate New York.
Yes. We were potato pickers; we were field workers. I am not an urban black man. I am a very rural black man. And maybe that’s why I’ve been able to assimilate with white people in the way I have been able to. And that’s why I was able to go off to the university with the idea that I wanted to go find James Baldwin’s world. And I wanted to find, and I did find, a person like Arnie Zane — Jewish, aesthetic, neurotic, poetic, fierce — and already dealing with being an androgynous man who was a white man who would be public about actually loving a black man, and it wasn’t some sort of a kink. He was able to love me.
That must have been powerful.
That was very affirming for my worldview. Now I don’t mind saying I am a black artist. For years I didn’t want to say that I was a black artist. I thought to be called a black artist was, well, to be put into a ghetto. Now I gladly enter into it because ... we can see race is very much with us. Race has not left. In the '60s we thought it would, in the '70s we thought it did. In [gay clubs then] … it felt like a utopia, except, even there, you realized that there were very few blacks. So the gay identity was white, middle-class. God knows, I love them — or I loved — those white boys.
What do you want your legacy to be?
He was a thinker and mover who was deeply human but ultimately unafraid. A thinker and a mover.