Bill T. Jones is the famed choreographer behind the smash Broadway sensation, Fela! He is well known for his masterful work and has a long career and a long list of accolades attesting to his genius in the realm of the dance.
When I was a writer at the Afrospear blog, I published a piece on the great Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti that was focused on the revolutionary politics of the man. Fela Kuti used his musicianship as a weapon against the militaristic regime in Nigeria. His political stance was informed in part by his revolutionary mother, Funmilayo Kuti and in part by a trip he made to America during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and what he learned of freedom fighting from the movement.
In that same piece, I also included a 10 minute long video of the Broadway show which strived to capture the essence of the man in a stage production. The actor/dancer/musician Sahr Ngaujah does a masterful job of bringing out the creativity, joyfulness and high energy side of the man, Fela, but for me it is the creative genius of Bill T Jones which deserves the lion’s share of credit. His dance creation has been described as a masterpiece of showmanship that slides into and manages to expose the heart Fela the man, his music, politics, and revolutionary stance. That Bill T. Jones was able to convey all of this in the dance is a testament to his profound choreographic talents.
Recently I found more of Bill’s work. A PBS series called American Masters featured Bill T. Jones at work on one of his dance pieces called A Good Man, which imagines the political and moral questions that President Abraham Lincoln faced at the height of America’s civil split, and whether we feel Lincoln’s struggles are relevant to us today.
This episode of American Masters documents Bill as he’s in the process of creating the dance piece. As a backdrop, Bill is trying to reconcile his five year old self who was taught to love “Father Abraham” unconditionally, to his fifty-six year old self who no longer believed in heroes. Often, Bill struggles with what exactly he wants the piece to convey about the President. Then as ideas come, his artistic mind has trouble expressing them to his young dancers in a concrete way they can understand. They are of a new generation who are not affected by Abe Lincoln in a sentimental way.
Bill fights his own insecurity with tackling the story of “The Great Emancipator” through the “lowly artform of modern dance”. As he watches his young artists, he works to get his dancers and musicians to release themselves from the youthful tendency toward “intellectual sloth” that he feels they possess. He wants them to participate more in the interpretive creative process, and they tend to wait for him to tell them what he wants. Overall, he deals with the emotional rollercoaster of the creative process.
With all that Bill and the young dancers put into it, in the end, A Good Man can be nothing but a masterpiece. I haven’t seen it but watching this documentary makes me feel that I have. This view of a master at work shaping and molding his dancers who then create the dance artistry has opened my world to the expression of dance.
Mine eyes were opened within this 10 minute range of Bill T. Jones’ hour long lecture. At one point he talked about the importance of being “ready” for those once in a lifetimes. He’s telling his audience how he was struggling with which way he could express these great ideas and concepts artfully in dance movements without offending or losing the viewer. What he does is breaks down a dance into a series of movements, each of which he names. I feel as though he’s given me a key, a insight into how to look at dance and appreciate it.
In this excerpt of another lecture, Bill T. Jones is teaching the audience how to receive the piece. He tutors them on how to look at it. He’s doubtful about the young people’s ability to grasp it, especially since he believes that many youth of today are far removed and ignorant of American history and President Lincoln’s place in it.
More details of the making – PBS website. Edited scenes http://www.kpbs.org/news/2011/nov/08/american-masters-bill-t-jones-good-man/
The final result of the documentary is as much art as the dance piece, in my opinion.