Irene Hsiao

Bill T. Jones at the DuSable Museum, Art AIDS America Chicago, 27 January 2017


I saw Bill T. Jones Friday night. I saw him closer up than I’ve ever seen him, close enough to look into the hollows of his cheeks in a face that looks hollowed out by wind and water. I saw him in the dark, to the side, and I saw him right away, even though we were having pictures flickered at us on a screen—because he has that thing called presence—which means, Mr. Jones, that the minute I saw you I knew you were already dancing—and I don’t remember what was on the screen at all.

He danced alongside his own image. The stage was dark. I’ve seen him dance before, nude or nearly so. But he danced first in the dark, and it must have been for himself, because it was so quiet.

When the lights came up, there he was, splendid, muscular, upright. You want to applaud right away. You want to listen. He told stories.

“I ain’t a memory,” he said. “Some of my friends can’t say that.”

He showed a film of Keith Haring painting his body with white lines in 1983, talked of how the British paparazzi burst in to see. It seemed playful, cartoonish, tribal. “Keith Haring passed in 1990,” he said. “Arnie Zane passed in 1988. Willi Smith passed in … Robert Mapplethorpe passed in…” The dates dropped away, leaving just spaces for breaths.

He talked about his partner, Arnie Zane, from sickness to last rites to body bag. He showed a film of them dancing a duet, Study for Valley Cottage—they danced very close at a steady pace, replacing the spaces the other left behind in perfect coordination, like the ground appearing beneath the falling foot, simple as walking: one leg. The other leg. Jones danced alone in the dark again as the film played. He described how he and others chanted, “Let go—let go—let go,” and how Zane responded, “Give me a break,” from his deathbed. He sang “A-a-amen a-a-a-men a-a-amen” for us, as he did when Arnie couldn’t hear him anymore, the breath that burst from him when Arnie died, and something, maybe his spirit, swooped by.

He remembered how, the morning after, not remembering, “my body began to weep.”

He talked about a friend, a dancer, D-Man, Demian Acquavella, who looked great in a tutu (he said so twice; it must have been true), who could no longer walk when the dance premiered. Jones carried him. He was never replaced when he, too, passed, leaving asymmetrical groups and formations in the piece. The dance was named “D-Man in the Waters,” after a vision Bill had had—“…I saw Demian and a myriad of friends, living and dead, in a body of water. Perhaps it was a lake as vast as the ocean, a lake emptied by a vast and unforgiving waterfall. This company of people was struggling against the current.”

Throughout it all, I thought, here is a man who can stand up and say he’s an artist, and I don’t doubt. The moments were beautiful—lived, but also made. He tossed his hand to the left, and the music stopped. He stepped forward and the lights flicked on to glitter in his eye. He read from typed pages but spoke as if they were memories flashing across his inward eye. He looked right at me—I believe.

But afterwards, he asked, “Is it enough to be naked and stand together bathed in golden light?” and said, of the idea that if you loved others and made art, the world would transform itself into a wonderful thing, “We were young then.”

He passed out microphones and asked if anyone had a plan. He said he was counting on it, that in the room, somewhere, someone is a genius.

I wondered what it is, to have spent a life making work that really did have everyone in it—old, young, black, brown, yellow, white, thin, fat, sick, well, gay, straight, anyone (it seemed)—to seem to despair.

It has to be bad if an artist had no ideas anymore. And I hear this inside and out. What is it for? Was it all a dream? Why create? Who are we speaking to, anyway? How can we make the world as we know it, and not the horror it is revealing itself to be?

No one had a plan.

A dance teacher seemed bewildered as she tried to remind him who he was, the author of (with Susan Kuklin) the minimally titled Dance! Boys who have turned up their noses at dance (for girls! etc) see Jones’s muscles and want to dance, too.

(it is impossible not to see Jones’s muscles)

An epidemiologist declared, “The same thing that made the sun made me.” She said, “We are in a cycle. I plan to keep working.”

An audience member objected, saying, “But what is the work?” He pointed out that the work means living, being, understanding what we do not want to understand, in places we do not want to live. Who really wants to go into those places?

Another said he didn’t. Why should he take that burden upon himself, at risk of his life, or at least his wellbeing? “If you don’t see me as a human, I don’t feel the need to teach you that I am.” The person behind him snapped her fingers in approval.

Jones saw the point. He said, “I’m an angry motherfucker. I don’t trust me. I don’t trust you.”

Another audience member, with the preface that her grandmother was a Voodoo High Priestess, began, “We are spiritual beings who amass here physically—”

But Jones cut her off because it was not a plan. “I’m not down with the magical,” he said. “I’m not down with armed revolution,” he added.

“I just wanted to point out that ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ contain the same letters,” interjected another. She finished, “Though you really just want to take a machete to them…”

Another said it was important to be tolerant and love each other.

“Who among us is intolerant?” Jones objected. “Raise your hands.” People mostly didn’t.

I raised mine, but not high enough for even my friend Traver next to me to see. I didn’t want to have to explain myself, plus there was a Voodoo High Priestess’s granddaughter in the house. But tolerant? I am not. I hate insincerity. I hate stupidity. I also hate the smell of patchouli, the sound of metal touching metal, lots and lots of noises but especially the sound of things not happening, people who dance as if music were just background noise, people who can but don’t read, people who don’t try to figure things out for themselves, inefficiency. I could go on. To state it briefly, I am fucking intolerant as hell. But I also remembered something Patrick Jagoda wrote, that he strives never to merely “tolerate” anyone—that is, that embedded in that thought is the notion that our highest duty to each other is only to withstand the fact of another’s existence. That is, to tolerate is to continue to draw a strict boundary between self and other.[1]

That said, I intend to keep tolerating patchouli.

“What AIDS taught us: me—you—doesn’t exist,” said Jones, motioning at an imaginary boundary. He called for an end to identity politics, for liberal flag-waving for diversity. He pointed out that groups addressed separate invite exclusion—and he named names. I don’t, because you can fill in your own.

Fine, but what is it, then? All lives matter?

I write all this, because I want to remember. I write all this because I have been trying to squeeze out solutions from myself. I write all this because I have long believed that art was everything, that it had the vision, the truth that didn’t yet exist in the world.

I have not loved the world. I have preferred to encounter others in dance. Choreography has at times felt to me like something divine—bodies made harmonious as and in music. Improvisation operates upon a different kind of contract, but one in which, first, you offer yourself, completely vulnerable and, by placing your life in the hands of others, discover freedom, form, relations you could not, yourself, have anticipated or constructed. Why wouldn’t I always dance if I could? Why wouldn’t you, if you knew about it?

But is it only that, a temporary daydream you enter with a few consenting others, just another way of playing house? But what if our house is like this, what if its walls and floor have been made of ideals we imagined into place, and we ate imaginary food and slept within the arms of a security we never had?

On Friday, the President signed an Executive Order forbidding entry to citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, including those already bearing visas and green cards, for 90 days. He also closed the door on refugees. To my (everyone’s?) shock, it took effect immediately. And people began to condemn it immediately, to rally, to protest at airports across the country.

We live in curious times, when news can draw a coordinated response so quickly. It makes me a slave to social media, where the news, true and false, spreads fastest, where there’s always news of a protest or a petition being circulated, where, if you have the “right” friends, you can be plugged into some form of action. It is somewhat exhilarating, if you are the type who can feel social exhilaration or any mote of satisfaction after you have added one more electronic blip to a petition, recorded one more crackle of fuzz in a voicemail box the someone of which you are phoning will never hear.

It is also terrible. Saturday was a tempest, from the horror of knowing that people who have lived and worked as members of their communities were being detained without cause, to the news that the ACLU had pulled off a stay to the ban, to the disappointing discovery that the stay protected only a select few, most of whom have not even been released from detention. And we’re still all bobbing up and down at his beck and call—what is it for? I feel played.

Where was I, when a good number of people I admired went posthaste to the airports? I was in attendance at a play. I had promised to go. A few of my friends were in it.

I had mixed feelings about this. It was not a good play, and I wasn’t expecting it to be.

I had wanted to be in it, actually. It’s in my neighborhood, and I wanted to belong to my neighborhood. My friend, who choreographs the show, had asked if I might participate. But the playwright said no, because I would “upset the gender balance.” Given that my extraordinary femininity has never threatened to imbalance anything, I knew this was nonsense.[2]

In an article that appeared in an “online magazine that celebrates the traditional qualities of a great world city,” the playwright was quoted as saying, “We have no auditions, and anyone who would like to perform is welcome.” The article was mainly to show off the show’s latest acquisition, a “world authority on Hinduism.”[3] Incidentally also a woman.

I realized after the polite rejection (I can’t help that I’m a woman; it certainly wasn’t personal)—there were (barring my friend, the choreographer) no people of color in the cast. It’s a large cast, 22 people. Plus 11 more who contributed in nonperforming capacities. And just one measly minority. 1/33 isn’t good representation—it’s not representation at all. The most humiliating part of this revelation is that I didn’t notice until I was the one who was shut out.[4]

I bring it up not because my life was destroyed by this insignificant snub but because it is another banal example of how the rhetoric of inclusion is deployed as a particularly gross form of exclusion. I don’t know why I should fixate on it—in fact, one of my other friends (by process of elimination, not Of Color) told me I should stop making a fuss; these were very nice people.

Of course, that’s the problem. They are nice. This is how nice people do it.[5]

I thought about my discomfort, recently, in a gallery of photos of the lake. They were beautiful, because the lake is beautiful—its changing face, its color, its moods. I’m on the lakefront path nearly every day, and I see it, and I feel lucky to see it, and I am lucky to see it. It has nothing to do with me, what I do, what I deserve, who I am. It is nature—it simply is. Those photos are of that everyday, the lake in high resolution, its horizon straight and firm across the middle of the plane, no dirt, no trash, no people, no shore, even, in sight. Is there even making in that? Or witness? But it is nice. And everyone at the exhibit was nice. I stayed two hours. Everyone else was well-off, white, married with children, a proud supporter of Hillary Clinton. The photos cost $1500 apiece. And I was uncomfortable, not because of who and what were there but what was missing.[6]

I am reminded of how famed New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce (famously) refused to watch Jones’s Still/Here because it contained videos of people dying of AIDS. She called it “victim art” in her 1994 review, which she felt confident about writing without having to see the work.

God forbid art should contain any reference to suffering or to life. God forbid any authority should have to see that.

Despair: I have known it, and I do know it, and I know it every day, or, if I am doing well, only every other day, though what I have experienced, having been largely surrounded by nice people, has nothing to do with the kind of despair that has a genuine right to exist. One asks, does this matter? Is it “work”? Why make “the work” if it only speaks to others who feel the same way? Why make “the work” if no one sees it at all?

These are not the right questions.

If we silence ourselves, we’ll have done the tyrant’s work for him. If we silence ourselves, we’ll have met him on his terms and destroyed our own. If we silence ourselves, we’ll believe what he said, because—what is it that Christians like to say?—the Word was God?

I don’t have to speak. My friend Demetrius McClendon quoted Zora Neale Hurston to me earlier this winter: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

But I do.


[1] Jagoda kindly reconstructed his thoughts for me—“Tolerance amounts to either willful compartmentalization or an implicit marking of hierarchy. And always an insistence on bracketing thought. At best, I suppose, it maps onto liberal laissez-faire and all of its later neoliberal/libertarian developments. At worst, it becomes virtually indistinguishable from pity. I think Nietzsche was right to rail against pity as an affect that negates life, and amounts to a practice of nihilism.”

[2] Plus dancing for a minute or two with an animal mask on hardly sounds like it would ruffle anyone’s sensibilities, man or woman. I am no great talent, but people have generally found my work good enough to pay for. I don’t mention this because I think getting paid for art is a mark of its value—it’s just shorthand. A token, not a necessity.

[3] It doesn’t seem fair to her to note that “world authorities” on anything are nearly always white, so I’ll merely state: she is white. It’s not her fault. There was also not much indicated about her theatrical experience, but her Wikipedia and her CV state that she studied with George Balanchine and Martha Graham, which sounds like plenty high pedigree to me. In the show, though, I can’t recall if she even walked.

[4] I should add that there have been an uncountable number of times I have not noticed, even when I was the one who was shut out, either because I tended to want to believe people who claimed to be “tolerant” or “inclusive” actually were or because I have been trained to believe that any discontent I may have with any unfairness or lack of adherence to that or other promises was “overreacting.” I was fired once for overreacting. But I realize now, when the director said that my asking questions was “undermining [her] authority,” that I needed to be disposed of because I exposed her hypocrisy.

[5] Afterwards, one of the actors told me, at great length, without pause, that before the election, he was making Trump jokes, thinking he’d do them until the election ended—but the reason the election didn’t work out is because people live in an alternate reality, where the tv and the internet seem like the truth. They had two options, he explained, a boring show and an interesting one. So they voted for the interesting one. He thinks standup comedy is the answer. Just putting that out there.

[6] It’s distinctly not nice to single this person’s work out for condemnation, and I don’t mean to condemn it. It’s nice. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’m sorry if I’ve been uncivil.

Related article: Making it Rite: Rite of Spring by Bill T. Jones and SITI, SF Weekly, 14 Oct. 2013


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