Dance for Life, Identity and Politics: Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane

In 1982, Jones and his same-sex partner Arnie Zane founded the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York. Since the 1960s, in which liberation movements were flourishing, the Civil Rights Movement, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s and the Gay Liberation Movements gradually yielded positive results in the 1980s, and the establishment of the Company resonated with such a space-time background. Jones and Arnie were a same-sex couple, a combination of black and white, and both of them were AIDS patients (Arnie died of AIDS in 1988). Due to their complicated identities, their performances took a unique path. Some of their works were directed towards ruminations on AIDS and homosexual identity, while some  explored topics on race relations. As for the form of expression, the artists sometimes combined dancing with different media through methods of poetry chanting and multimedia settings so as to create a diversified stage image. Since Arnie was a photographer, his viewpoints of photography also influenced the abstract qualities laden with the symbolist poetic implications in Jones’ dance. Freeze-frame angles were always adopted in the choreography to display the sharp transition from one motion to another. Through abstract bodily forms, together with critical social issues, metaphor was always used in their dance for the intractable political ambiguity.

Since Merce Cunningham’s innovation in the 1960s, postmodern dance of the United States was gradually heading towards exploration of the pure form, where the plots, structures and sensibility were removed, leaving pure body movements. However, during the second wave of postmodern dance in the 1980s, choreographers were more concerned about identity politics in their works. Jones is indeed an artist who had successfully integrated dance styles with critical content during the second wave of postmodern dance trend. His dance attaches importance to bodies and lines of the pure form, as well as daily life actions of the ordinary people. Yet, dialogues are added into the dance, accompanying the poetry-like language with personal feelings. Aside from the techniques of traditional African-American dance, ballet and modern dance, Jones also makes use of “contact improvisation” – a technique in which a duo move their bodies while maintaining balance mutually – to develop a body vocabulary. Contact improvisation grants dancers of different figures the opportunity to interact in a fair manner, hence the choreographer extends it into the exploration of equality to eliminate the boundary between daily life and art…

By I-Wen Chang (PhD in Culture and Performance at the University of California, Los Angeles, a freelance writer and critic)

This article is excerpted and translated from Chinese.