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Bill T. Jones - More Resources

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Bill T. Jones (1952- )

By Kirsten Wilkinson

“We wanted to create a company, an environment, reflective of the world we wanted to live in.  By this we meant that people would not be limited by their gender, race or ethnicity, in what they danced, how they danced or with whom they danced.”1  This mission statement of sorts imbues and embodies the philosophy behind the work and art of the multi-facetted, ever-evolving, always exploring Bill T. Jones. Born William Tass Jones in Bunnell, Florida, Jones has become one of the most thought-provoking and controversial dance artists of the 21st century.  His ability to reach inside himself, and to encourage others to reach inside themselves, has resulted in some of his most famous choreographic works to date.  He makes the “personal political”2 and strives to push the limits of what can and will be presented on stage by reminding people of their humanity and mortality.

Jones’ transient lifestyle as a young child, moving around the American South before settling in upstate New York with eleven siblings and his parents Augustus and Estella Jones, has been a source of inspiration for his dance and art.  He entered the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1970, where his formal dance training began.  “Jones studied experimental movement with Kei Takei, contact improvisation with Lois Welk, Humphery-Weidman technique, Cecchetti ballet, West African and Afro-Caribbean dance, Graham technique, and Hawkins free-flow,” according to Sanjoy Roy.3His early dance training at SUNY, though started late by most standards, was well rounded and provided many opportunities for Jones.   During his time in college Jones met Arnie Zane (1948-1988).  The two became both professional and personal partners, collaborating on works for seventeen years. 

Zane and Jones were known for their stimulating duets challenging social norms.  They were on the forefront of same-sex and “gender bending” artistic testimonials in dance and among the first to consistently confront the audiences of the 1980s with homosexual perspectives in dance and choreography.  However, Jones’s artistic voice continued to expand.  In 1973, Zane and Jones co-founded the American Dance Asylum with Jill Becker and Lois Welk.  From the mid-1970s to 1981 the group toured throughout the world.  In this work Jones considered such topics as civil rights and identity politics.  His early choreography was somewhat avant-garde and fed into the wave of counterculture movements sweeping all art disciplines.   In 1982, Zane and Jones founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.  The aesthetic identity of the dancers was that they were distinct individuals with nontraditional dance bodies, varying in age, gender, color, size and shape. 

In 1988 Jones lost Arnie Zane, his life partner, to an AIDS-related illness.  Yet, through his own triumphs and tragedies; his personal struggles and battles won, Jones continues to use his dance as a voice for those who might otherwise have none.  As an African-American, HIV-positive, homosexual male in the United States, Jones has used his personal stories to influence and inform his work.  However, he has struggled to be seen as more than those labels within the dance world. While the themes of sexual orientation, race and AIDS have been a driving force behind Jones’s choreographic choices throughout the years, he has also tackled wider-ranging issues such as loss, death, survival, and hope, as most noted in his highly controversial choreographic work Still/Here (1994). 

Jones has been called a choreographic provocateur, due to his uncompromising, ironic, and occasionally confession-driven material.  He is a captivating speaker and continues to conduct workshops, bringing his audiences and participants inside the creative process.  When watching Bill T. Jones’s work it has been said that one must look for “human diversity, personal revelation and social comment combined with artistic values,” for those are some of his “key ingredients.” Jones’ work can feel contradictory, moral, invasive; however, he “has always liked to talk to his audience…even when he doesn’t open his mouth, his shows speak loudly of the politics and passions of their subject matter, whether they be sex, race, art or death.”5 His choreography is undeniably a vehicle for his story. 

Jones’s style and choreographic technique have been guided by his early training, yet while some of his work seems overly influenced by his contact improvisational instruction, his pieces always have a clear and precise tendency; there is nothing random or without meaning in his process or what he presents on stage.  As dance has embraced multi-media, so has Jones.  The goal of his dance company remains one that “nurtures the art of dance, educates the public, and promotes collaboration among members of the allied arts of music, theater, new media, visual arts, etc. and the communities in which they work.”6 Jones's work raises the challenging question of what it means for an artist to be "American," a label that has occasionally been applied to him. The controversy comes from his daring and often referenced work Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990), which has caused much investigation and evaluation as a dance work that could define certain issues that plagued a generation of Americans.

Jones’s work continues to question the relationship between dance and politics.  “Everything is political to me.  But that can’t be all it is,” Jones stated in an interview in 2008. As an artist he continues to come to terms with his own success and survival, both artistically and personally.  “I have two feelings, one is that we can’t really change anything and the other is that we must try.  How do those two notions cohabit?  They can live on a stage together, but can they live in life together?”7  And while he will always turn the mirror of self-reflection upon his audiences, his company members and his world, it should not be forgotten that he perpetually turns that mirror on himself as well. 

Jones has created over 140 works for his company as well as numerous commissioned works for various dance companies around the world, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Lyon Opera Ballet, the Berlin Opera Ballet, and the Boston Ballet.  Both Fever Swamp (1983) and Still/Here (1994) were featured in PBS’s Great Performances Series.  His work D-Man in the Waters (1989) was included in Free to Dance (2001), an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the roots of African American modern dance.  He has also been the recipient of multiple awards and honorary degrees.  Jones published an autobiography, Last Night on Earth, in 1995.  A list of some of his most famous choreographic works and his awards is included below.


Appendix: Selected Choreographic Works

Fever Swamp (1983), Intuitive Momentum (1983), Dances with Brahms (1984), Secret Pastures (1985), Virgil Thompson Etudes (1986), Red Room (1987), D-Man in the Waters (1989),  It Take Two (1989), Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990), Broken Wedding (1992), Achilles Loved Patroclus (1993), Still/Here (1994), Love Re-Defined (1996), We set out early…Visibility Was Poor (1997), The Breathing Show (1999), How!Do!We!Do! (1999), The Table Project (2001), WORLD II (18 Movements to Kurtag) (2002), Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger (2003), Blind Date (2005), Chapel/Chapter (2006), A Quarreling Pair (2007), 100 Migrations (2008), Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray (2009), Story/Time (2012).      


Selected Awards

1979 Creative Artists Public Service Award in Choreography

1980-1982 Choreographic Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts

1986 “Bessie” Award

1989 “Bessie” Award

1991 Dorothy B. Chandler Performing Arts Award

1992 “Izzie” Award

1993 Dance Magazine Award

1994 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship Award

2001 “Bessie” Award

2001 “Izzie” Award

2003 The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize

2005 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement

2005 Wexner Prize

2006 Obie Award

2007 Tony Award for Best Choreography for Spring Awakening

2007 USA Eileen Harris Horton Fellowship

2007 Induction into the National Museum of Dance

2009 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Choreography for Fela!

2010 Tony Award for Best Choreography for Fela!

2010 Kennedy Center Honors

2011 Young Arts Arion Award

Honorary Doctorates include Arts Institute of Chicago, Bard College, Columbia College, the Julliard School, Swarthmore College, Yale University and the Distinguished Alumni Award from SUNY Binghamton.


1 Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company Facebook page

2 Roy, Sanjoy. “Step by Step Guide to dance: Bill T. Jones”

3 Tracy, Robert. “International Encyclopedia of Dance” pages 620-621

4 Roy, Sanjoy. “Step by Step Guide to dance: Bill T. Jones”

5 O’Mahoney, John. “Body Artist”

6 Bill T. Jones Facebook Page

7 Wildman, Sarah. “Choreographer Moving to a New Beat”

Kirsten Wilkinson holds a BA in Dance and Modern Performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder and an MA in Dance and Research from American University in Washington DC. Kirsten has worked within the not-for-profit field of dance in various capacities, and is currently a project associate at the Dance Heritage Coalition, where she received consecutive fellowships in 2005 and 2006. Kirsten is also a Dance Archivist at the Library of Congress within the Music Division. Besides her passion for dance preservation and documentation, Kirsten is also a professional dancer and instructor. She is Artistic Director of her own contemporary dance company, KWdance, and has performed and presented original choreography around the world, as well as lecturing around the country about topics in Dance Preservation, Dance Theory and Dance History. Kirsten is currently teaching and choreographing in the DC area while she also continues to research and support dance documentation and preservation on all fronts. Follow her blog at www.kwdanceblog.wordpress.com 


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Bacon, Julie; Bill T. Jones. “Tracing the Language of Bill T. Jones.” TDR, Vol. 49, No. 2: 14-23 (Summer 2005).

Birringer, Johannes. “The Movement of Memory: Scanning Dance.” Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 3: 165-172 (1998). 

Boyce, Johanna; Bill T. Jones. “Movement and Gender: A Roundtable Discussion.” TDR, Vol. 32, No. 4: 82-101 (Winter 1988).

Browning, Barbara. “Incessant Daily Negotiations: Bill T. Jones’s Floating the Tongue.” TDR, Vol. 49, No. 2: 87-92 (Summer 2005).

De Spain, Kent. “Dance and Technology: A Pas de Deux for Post Humans.” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1: 2-17 (Summer 2000).

Dent, Michelle. “Checking the Time: Bill T. Jones’s American Utopia.” TDR, Vol. 49, No. 2: 24-47 (Summer 2005).

Dent, Michelle; M. J. Thompson. “Bill T. Jones: Moving, Writing, Speaking.” TDR, Vol 49, No. 2: 48-63 (Summer 2005).

Dils, Ann. “The Ghost in the machine: Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones.” A Journal of Performance And Art, Vol. 24, No 1: 94-104 (January 2002).

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Body Politic of Bill T. Jones.” The New Yorker (28 November 1994).

Gere, David. “Writing an Obituary for AIDS.” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 34, No. 1: 62-68 (Summer 2002).

Holland, Sharon P. “Bill T. Jones, Tupac Shakur and the (Queer) Art of Death.” Callaloo, Vol. 23, No. 1: 384-393 (Winter 2000).

Jones, Bill T.; Susan Kuklin. Dance!. New York: Hyperion, 1998.

Jones, Bill T.; Lori Ortiz.  “Keeping up with Jones: Chapel/Chapter.” A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 29, No. 2: 81-87 (May 2007).

Jones, Bill T. Last Night on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

Jones, Bill T.; Eric K. Washington. “Sculpture in Flight.” Transition, No. 62: 188-202 (1993).

O’Mahony, John. “Body Artist.” The Guardian (1 June 2004).

Paris, Carl. “Will the Real Bill T. Jones Please Stand up?.” TDR, Vol. 49, No. 2: 64-74 (Summer 2005).

Roy, Sanjoy. “Step by Step guide to dance: Bill T. Jones.” The Guardian (9 November 2010).

Sarandon, Susan. “Up In Arms: Bill T. Jones Gives it Up for Susan Sarandon.” QW Magazine (October 1992).

Thompson, M. J. “Sincerely Dancing: Bill T. Jones Sleight of Hand.” TDR, Vol. 49, No. 2: 75-86 (Summer 2005).

Tracy, Roberts. “Full Circle.” Dance Magazine (October 1992): 38-41.

Tracy, Roberts. “Jones, Bill T.” International Encyclopedia of Dance. Ed. Selma Jeanne Cohen. Vol 4. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Wildman, Sarah. “Choreographer Moving to a New Beat.” The Guardian (23 January 2008).    

Zane, Arnie; Jones, Bill T. and Jonathan Green. Continuous Replay: The Photographs of Arnie Zane. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

Zimmer, Elizabeth, and Susan Quasha, eds. Body against Body: The Dance and Other Collaborations of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. New York: Station Hill Press, 1989.

Online Resources

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company Facebook Page www.facebook.com/BillTJonesArnieZaneDanceCompany

Moving Image

A Good Man. Bob Hercules, Kartemquin Films, 2011.

“An Evening with Bill T. Jones”. YouTube, 31 January 2008.


“Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at The Dance Center”. YouTube, 26 August 2011.


Bill T. Jones: Dancing to the Promised Land. Mischa Scorer, V.I.E.W Video, 2004.

“Bill T. Jones Fragment from The Breathing Show”. YouTube, 21 January 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOSsDHLooi0

Bill T. Jones: Solos. Don Kent, Bel Air Classiques, 2008.

Bill T. Jones: Still/Here with Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers and David Grubin, PBS Video, 1997.

Black Is…Black Ain’t. Marlon Riggs, Docurama, 1994.

D-Man in the Waters”. YouTube, 31 October 2010.


Dancing in the Light: Six Dance Compositions by African American Choreographers.  Kultur Video, 2007.

Free to Dance. PBS Video, 2001.

I’ll make me a World: The Freedom you will take (A Century of African American Arts).  PBS Video, 1999.

“In Conjunction with his Performance, Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray”. YouTube, 9 September 2010.


“Interview with Philip Bither, Story/Time”. YouTube, 10 January 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5mLQ5SQRqc

“Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival”. YouTube, 19 April 2012.


“Julian Bond Interviews Bill T. Jones”. YouTube, 2 December 2011.


“ProjectHumanities”. YouTube, 4 April 2011.


Soon”. YouTube, 5 November 2010.


The Black List Volume 1. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Indican Pictures, 2008.

“The Creative Process: A lecture By Bill T. Jones”. YouTube, 19 May 2008.


The Kitchen Presents Two Moon July. Tom Bowes, Pacific Arts Video, 1986.

The Universe of Keith Haring. Christina Clausen, New Video Group, 2008.