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Tony Nominee Q&A with Bill T. Jones

Bill T. Jones, nominated for Best Choreography for Spring Awakening is the recipient of the 2005 Wexner Prize, the 2005 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement, a 2005 Harlem Renaissance Award, and the 2003 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.  Mr. Jones began his dance training at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY), studying classical ballet and modern dance. Mr. Jones choreographed and performed worldwide as a soloist and duet company with his late partner, Arnie Zane before forming the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982, which recently celebrated its 20th Anniversary season. Creating more than 100 works for his own company, Mr. Jones has also choreographed for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Boston Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet, and Berlin Opera Ballet, among others. In 1994, Mr. Jones received a MacArthur "Genius" Award. Bill T. Jones has been awarded several New York Dance and Performance ("Bessie") Awards; 1986 Joyce Theater Season (along with Arnie Zane), D-Man in the Waters (1989 and 2001), The Table Project (2001) and The Breathing Show (2001). In 2000, The Dance Heritage Coalition named Mr. Jones "An Irreplaceable Dance Treasure."  Mr. Jones has received honorary doctorates from the Art Institute of Chicago, Bard College, Columbia College, the Juilliard School, Swarthmore College, and the SUNY Binghamton Distinguished Alumni Award. Television credits include PBS's "Great Performances" Series (Fever Swamp and Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land) and "Alive from Off Center" (Untitled).  A PBS documentary on the making of Still/Here, by Bill Moyers and David Grubin, "Bill T. Jones: Still/Here with Bill Moyers", premiered in 1997. D-Man in the Waters is included in "Free to Dance", a 2001 Emmy winning documentary that chronicles modern dance's African-American roots. 

Ah, – what did we do before the Internet?

I think people actually went outside and talked to one another…

<Laughing> True, but this is all good for Broadway because you guys helped to port these minds to something new.  There's so many fans of Spring Awakening online. I was one of those people that was so committed to live performance that I thought that when the Internet took off, that they'd maybe lose that communal experience, but it's great to see that people are still going to the trouble of getting a ticket, getting there, parking, sitting in a room with people, it's great to see.

How did you get the news about your nomination?

Yesterday I was heading to a meeting in Chicago and I got off of the flight, and as it was taking off, I couldn't hear what my agent was trying to tell me on the cell phone. When I landed and as I got to my meeting, the head of this theatre said congratulations on the nomination and the calls started flooding in!

Just what is the feeling like and how far reaching are the calls?

Well this was all out in Chicago, and it's amazing, because I've been getting calls and emails from people that I haven't seen since high school. I've kept a distance from it all psychologically but now I'm embracing it all.

This show also marks your Broadway debut, so what a great way to start!

This is my first show, and I've made my reputation as a concert and dance choreographer and I always felt like I didn't need Broadway. I was in drama club in high school and that was it for me in theatre. I liked Michael though, and loved the music and the show. So now, I'm committed. I want to take a nap and to wake up after the Tony awards, because I want to, but can't stop thinking about it. I'm still involved with my own company so it's a wild time.

Spring Awakening led the pack with 11 nominations, you must be thrilled for the show as a whole?

Very! Never mind about my work, because I think that the show deserves all of its accolades because of its subject matter and what it preaches. I've been telling many of my friends who had children and grew up in the sixties and seventies that still haven't had the conversation about sexuality with their kids to go and see the show. When they do, they know that their 15 year old daughter might be sitting there and watching this seduction happening right there, and they know that they have something to talk to their children about. You can't get away from it.

I think that's definitely part of the appeal for the show, these amazing lessons that it teaches.

It does, it teaches lessons with a real wonderful beat. I don't know how they're going to handle songs on tour though like "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally F***ed". Can we say that on

Sure, we'll put in a few asterisks…

We're having discussions on how we're going to handle songs like that in the touring versions and we're trying to figure all of that out right now. We all come from those little towns that aren't quite like New York, so we're going to see what it does. I don't think it's gratuitous though so the question is if we can still have the impact with something else.

It might not be something that parents will be wild about, but it is how their kids are talking…

If you talk about "Totally F***ed", I've been there, that was me as a teenager. My Southern Baptist mother would have never tolerated it, but I know kids that feel that no one understands, and you can't always do it with happy language.

Working with the cast, how did you get them to portray that…

I said – don't shut down, but pretend you can really tell that teacher what you think of them, and the dancing then has that energy in there…

Did you have similar lessons for the other scenes of the show?

The show has a tone as a whole and that's what got me interested. The first thing you learn about is about this little girl standing and looking at her body which is in bloom, and I said that she should be moving in a way that her body is moving in a way that it  knows the things she needs, that she doesn't know yet that she needs. That awakening is moving like a virus through her and all these kids till it explodes everywhere… .

It certainly does, are you interested in continuing work in the theatre?

Absolutely. I was asked recently to talk to the youth about the journey of theatre. The biggest lesson, and one thing that theatre says, is that you have to get "it" out of your head. Everyone has a dream, but theatre is when the dream gets out of your heads, into words, songs and dancing and I couldn't be happier that people are embracing ours.

Photo by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.

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