Exclusive: Bill T. Jones Talks Dance

Bill T. Jones is a mover and a shaker. He’s one of the most widely recognized dancers and choreographers working today, as well as the artistic director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Performing and creating dance and theater works for more than 30 years, Jones is celebrated for his hybrid mix of movement, drama, and staging. An educator who has taught nearly as long as he’s performed, Jones is one of the nine mentors — along with Placido Domingo, Frank Gehry, Julian Schnabel, Liv Ullmann, and others — taking part in HBO’s Masterclass. We recently spoke to Jones about mentoring and his creative process, and he had lots to share.

Bill T. Jones, Photo: Kevin Fitzsimmons, Courtesy of Wexner Center for the Arts

Flavorpill: Do young artists need mentors?

Bill T. Jones: Well, I’ve gone round and round on this question. I hope it isn’t a dodge, but I think that the action of conversation across generations is very important to the artistic process, the artistic health of a culture. I think that there’s a conversation that should happen across generations.

FP: Did you have a mentor?

BTJ: I had some wonderful teachers. A mentor is something that we did in Masterclass, which meant someone sits down and gives you his full attention. That didn’t really happen for me. I had the privilege of watching older artists work, but I didn’t have the benefit of anyone sitting and advising me.

I remember once walking up to the great Daniel Nagrin at a cocktail party to ask him for advice. He was a very important soloist, who made his first solo dance piece in 1948, and was quite a formidable connection to a whole earlier time from a modern dance point of view. I knew him through the university that I was attending and, in a very self important way, as young people do, I went up to him as he was balancing his cake on his lap at this cocktail party that he didn’t want to be at and I said, “You know, I’m thinking I might, I’m not sure about it, but I might want to do some solo work.” And he said very coldly, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t,” and then he turned his back on me and continued eating.

Now, that mentorship was not something about my egotism. He was giving me a very tough lesson: that you have to make up your own mind about what you want to do. “Don’t waste my time. I’m not here to coddle you.” That was important stuff that I had to learn, but it wasn’t an official mentorship, no.

Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray, Photo by Russell Jenkins

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