Few have shaped contemporary American dance as profoundly as Bill T. Jones.
Beginning in the 1970s, Jones and his late partner, Arnie Zane, tackled issues of racism, sexism and sexual identity while also experimenting with video, spoken narrative and other multimedia elements. Works such as “Still/Here” and “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land” — which Jones created in the wake of Zane’s death, in 1988 — captured both the emotional toll of the AIDS crisis and a stubborn refusal to succumb.
This fall, Jones will receive the 2016 International Humanities Prize from Washington University in St. Louis. Granted biennially, the prize honors the lifetime work of a noted scholar, writer or artist who has made a significant and sustained contribution to the world of letters or the arts. Previous winners include Orhan Pamuk (2006), Michael Pollan (2008), Francine Prose (2010), Ken Burns (2012) and Marjorie Perloff (2014).
“Our core mission in the humanities is to explore the human condition across time and space,” said Jean Allman, the J.H. Hexter Professor in the Humanities and director of the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences, which administers the award. “Through humanistic inquiry we excavate, we discover, we reflect upon, and we analyze that condition whether in all of its horror or in all of its beauty and wonder.
“Bill T. Jones, by any measure, is one of the most influential humanists of our time,” Allman said. “His works have not only inspired generations of dancers and choreographers — they have shaped the ways we think about the arts and the complexity of issues they engage.”
Jones, artistic director of New York Live Arts, will receive the prize, which is accompanied by a $25,000 award, during a public ceremony in the university’s Edison Theatre Sept. 29. In addition, Dance St. Louis will present the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in concert Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“Bill T. Jones is without question one of our greatest living choreographers,” said Paige McGinley, assistant professor of performing arts in Arts & Sciences, who nominated Jones for the award. “So much more than a social comment ‘about’ sexuality, blackness, or AIDS, Jones’ dances marry a formally brilliant movement vocabulary to images, texts and sounds.
“The resulting works push audiences to rethink the relationship between the intimate and the political, between bodies and histories,” McGinley said. “Jones’ choreography has shone new light on historical figures that we thought we knew (such as Fela Kuti and Abraham Lincoln) as well as on marginalized people who are not often made the subject of art.”
For more information, visit cenhum.artsci.wustl.edu.
About Bill T. Jones
Jones was born in Florida in 1952, the child of migrant farm workers. Raised in upstate New York, he was a high school track star but discovered a talent for performance while at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “When I took classes in West African and African-Caribbean dancing,” he told PBS’s American Masters, “I started skipping track practice.”
It was there that Jones met Zane. Though physically a study in contrasts — Jones tall, powerful and African-American; Zane shorter, wiry and white — they were soon inseparable. In 1973, the pair began presenting choreography at New York’s famed Dance Theater Workshop and, in 1982, launched the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
Over the years, Jones has created more than 140 dances for the acclaimed multicultural troupe, which he continues to lead, as well as commissions for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Boston Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet, Berlin Opera Ballet and many others. He also has choreographed extensively for theater, including the Broadway hits “Spring Awakening” (2006) and “Fela!” (2009).
Jones’ many honors include a MacArthur “Genius” Award, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish prize, a pair of Tony Awards and numerous New York Dance and Performance (a.k.a. “Bessie”) Awards. His memoir, “Last Night on Earth,” was published in 1995. “Body Against Body: The Dance and Other Collaborations of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane,” which the two men wrote together, was released in 1989.
“I think the passion and honesty in Jones’ work speaks not only to the African-American experience, but to human experiences across the global spectrum,” said Cecil Slaughter, professor of the practice in dance. “Through his process and movement vocabulary, Jones has developed a finely tuned kinesthetic awareness that embodies the very nature of human emotion.
“Like a beautiful poem, his choreography moves the soul.”
Editor’s note: Jones is available for interviews both before and during his visit to St. Louis. To arrange an interview, contact Liam Otten at 314-935-8494 or Liam_Otten@wustl.edu.