Choreographer Bill T. Jones discusses philosophy and his art

At his lecture Monday night, world-renowned choreographer Bill Jones stood in front of the Davenport College common room reading, his dancer’s muscles slyly peeking out of his tight turtleneck shirt.

The dancer read passages from political theorist Hannah Arendt’s “The Human Condition,” focusing on the principles of labor, work and action. He connected the work back to his life, his dance and the title of his Lustman Fellowship lecture: “Some Thoughts on Making, Doing and Time.” Jones spent the day at Yale, speaking at Davenport and the School of Drama, and dining at Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld’s ’71 GRD ’76 house.

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Eva Galvan
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The Lustman Fellowship is a program set up by a foundation in honor of Seymour Lustman, the former Master of Davenport College who died in 1971. Jones is the first person to be awarded the Lustman Fellowship in 10 years, Schottenfeld said after the event.

Before embarking on his discussion of “labor, work and action” in relation to “making, doing and time,” Jones, who is artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and has received a MacArthur “Genius” Award and a Tony Award, mused on being an artist.

“It’s trial and error,” he said. “It’s like an alchemist.”

In the beginning of the lecture, he showed a clip from his recent Off Broadway show “Fela!,” about musician Fela Kuti, and produced by Yale alum Stephen Hendel ’73, who attended the lecture. Later on he would share a clip from “Serenade/The Proposition” part of his work about Abraham Lincoln.

Jones later related Arendt’s idea of labor to the work of modern dancer Yvonne Rainer, who choreographs pieces incorporating everyday movements. Jones demonstrated with his body how those dances would be about a man resting his hand unconsciously on his cheek, or how someone might roll his or her head, or stick their arms out and flick their hands.

After some more musing, Jones stopped and related them to his own work.

“I also thought art maybe had to be about,” he took a long pause, “…politics, power, remembrances, getting something right. Labor, work, action.”

Jones discussed his connection to two of his subjects, Fela Kuti and Abraham Lincoln, describing how he cried when he saw the wear on the brim of Lincoln’s hat while doing research on the storied president.

Associate Resident Fellow of Davenport College Eytan Halaban said he had trouble initially connecting with Jones’ lecture, until the second half, when included Jones’ discussions of Lincoln, drew him in.

Laura Biascoechea ’09 was especially interested in attending Jones’ talk because she said she will be studying his work in her Dance Theater class, taught by Theater Studies lecturer Michael Tracy. Hearing him speak will make her assignment to choreograph a dance inspired by his style “more holistic,” she said..

“I found it really interesting that he never talked about movement styles,” Biascoechea said.

Yale College lecturer and Artistic Director of the World Performance Project Emily Coates ’06, who has danced with the New York City Ballet and other companies, said his approach to dance is relevant to Yale students studying performance.

“He has used dance theater as a medium to explore urgent questions relating to human existence, and as a medium through which to articulate certain social political beliefs,” she said earlier Monday. “It fits very neatly into the courses that we offer within theater studies and the other dance artists that we have invited to campus through the World Performance Project and Yale Repertory Theater.”

Reflecting on his lecture, Coates praised his truthfulness.

“He was very honest about where he is as an artist,” she said. “What more can you ask?”

After talking about Hannah Arendt, Fela Kuti, Abraham Lincoln and President Barack Obama, Jones ended by posing questions on his themes to the audience.

“Why make?” he said. “Why do? Talk to me.”

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