“Movement begins to negotiate the distance between the brain and the body.”⏤Bill T. Jones
For a class in my MFA program in which we explored our identities as artists, we were asked to choose an art form we’d never tried before and practice it as a means to gain insight into our own art. This is how I became acquainted with Bill T. Jones.
Although there is a photo of me in a pink tutu as a three-year-old and I look quite happy in it, I have never considered myself graceful in movement or anything remotely close to a dancer. The idea of dancing in front of others made me so uncomfortable, I think it was the enormity of my fear that goaded me into trying it for this class. In the process, I found a story muse in Bill T. Jones.
Born in 1952, Jones is an acclaimed choreographer, director, author, and dancer. In the early 1980s, he and his partner (in dance and life) Arnie Zane created their own dance company. Through their groundbreaking work together, they “redefined the duet form and foreshadowed issues of identity, form, and social commentary,” as noted by their dance company’s website. After Zane’s death in 1988, Jones brought his work to New York Arts Live and became its artistic director.
Still/Here, a 1995 dance created by Jones about people living with terminal illness, illustrates everything I love about his approach to story: he is astute at distilling complex narratives to their essence without losing the nuances of the details; he is brilliant at channeling emotion through his performances and his choreography; and he builds story by listening deeply to those with experiences relevant to his subject.
In an interview with Bill Moyers about Still/Here, Jones is shown working with the volunteers he recruited to help him create the dance. All were people living with terminal illness. With Jones’ tender and intuitive guidance, each person in the group was nurtured and encouraged to reflect on their life, even envisionoing their own deaths, and to translate their feelings into body movements. The experience is cathartic and transformative for all involved. These movements became the building blocks from which Jones choreographed the dance.
Jones’ work opened a world to me that I had ignored⏤the idea that we hold so much of our life story within our bodies; that our felt experiences leave residues within us which can linger long after we think we’ve moved on; that movement can unlock and express memory, emotion, and identity in ways not available in other art forms; and that dance is a healing story form every bit as powerful and maybe moreso than writing or any other form of story expression.
PhOTOGRAPH OF BILL t. JONES FROM WBUR.ORG Choreographer Bill T. Jones Brings Exploration Of Trauma And Oral History To ICA
That inner voice has both gentleness and clarity. So to get to authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something.
Would like to see that photo of you in a tutu. People have been telling stories through dance since history began. How does that art translate to other creative endeavors?
If you really want to see that photo, you can find it at my website (studiolustories.org) in the video on the front page (at 0:33). I was known for being a cowboy when I was a kid, not a ballerina. I definitely arrived at the dance party late! What I noticed about dance that has helped my story process is that tuning into my bodily sensations can be a useful guide for how I approach the writing or the visuals for a story. And I really appreciated watching Bill T. Jones work with his volunteers to elicit their story from them. I am wondering about ways I can incorporate some of his techniques of encouragement, in the interviews I do for stories. Actually, it might really open up conversation if I suggested that someone show me through a movement what their feeling was if they can’t find words.
I’m reminded of studies showing that writing, when we connect past events to their emotional import, can have measurable consequences for our health. Yes, our bodies hold stories, but we can work with those stories–attend them, choose to make something of them–and then our stories make our bodies.
Yes, your note reminds me of Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score. I agree with you that how we tend to our stories is important. I have read that making meaning from our stories is the differentiating characteristic that helps us transform them in a positive way, but I have only scratched the surface in this area of research. I really like your final phrase: “…our stories make our bodies.”
I’ve always thought that we are embodied beings for a reason. Our soul enters a particular body-self, our home in this world during this lifetime. It seems that often we are taught to disconnect from our bodies and live in our heads, or that to be spiritual we must transcend the body; I think we miss out on the wisdom carried in the body and the sacredness of the soul’s relationship with body-self. There’s a sense that Bill T Jones has a very conscious and well-tended relationship with both soul and body, and allows soul to speak through body in its own language.
Body as home in this lifetime. Very compelling. Home is a powerful theme. Like story, I bet we all have a variety of definitions of it. I think you are right about Bill T. Jones being very conscious of and connected with both soul and body. That’s what I perceive, as well, when I watch his movements.