Bill T. Jones—the man behind Broadway’s ‘Fela!’

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NEW YORK – In the run-up to the Broadway
opening of Fela! – Bill T. Jones’ new musical -
one man sat through every single preview performance
and hated being there every minute.

NEW YORK – In the run-up to the Broadway opening of Fela! – Bill T. Jones’ new musical – one man sat through every single preview performance and hated being there every minute.That would be Bill T. Jones. “For the most part, if somebody wiggles or looks at their watch or, heaven forbid, somebodyleaves, it’s awful,” the director and choreographer confesses from a restaurant booth an hour or so before he must attend yet another performance as a quality-control monitor. Don’t get him wrong: Jones loves it when the audience cheers or claps. But there area always a few folks who sit unmoved, arms crossed, sour. Jones, unnoticed among the throng, grits his teeth. “I. Don’t. Like. It,” he says, deliberately enunciating each word in disgust. “It’s part of my spiritual struggle because I just can’t stand it. I want people to enjoy it, but I don’t want to know what you’re thinking.” So far, fans have outnumbered the sourpusses as Jones puts the finishing touches on the frenetic biography of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died in 1997 at age 58. Originally appearing off-Broadway last year, “Fela!” won raves for its energetic dancing and infectious Afrobeat music – a fusion of jazz, R&B, rock and soul music – all culled from Kuti’s catalog. “You have to listen to it with your head and your hips. Maybe that’s true of much African music but definitely his music,” says Jones, who co-conceived and wrote the book with Jim Lewis. Under Jones’ direction, the stately Eugene O’Neill Theatre has been transformed into Kuti’s performance place in Lagos called “The Shrine.” The actor playing Kuti performs as the swaggering master of ceremonies, introducing the musical numbers and narrating his remarkable life. The audience can’t help but get sucked in: Dancers spill out into the audience, a live band keeps up a head-bobbing groove and theatergoers are twice invited to participate – getting up and dancing at one point and singing back to Kuti at another. Jones loves it that Broadway crowds obey, no matter now silly they feel. “Isn’t it wonderful that it’s possible? And isn’t it wonderful that if you create the right environment and make people feel safe and loosen up, that they will become a group?” Figuring out a Broadway audience is still a new challenge for Jones, 57, a dapper former dancer who has maintained his lithe elegance and slender build. Known as a proudly experimental choreographer who explores complex themes in his dance, he is gingerly feeling his way in a more traditional medium. “I’m trying to make a good show that appeals to the widest number of people,” he says. “However, I do want people to say, ‘You know what? I haven’t seen anything like it.’ That’s the risk – how much freedom can you have?” Jones seems to have struck the right balance. The audience at a recent preview included a mix of graying 1960s radicals, sleek arty types, YouTube hipsters and Africans who remember Kuti. The show has also bewitched high-beam names such as Jay-Z, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who have joined the producing team. Jones, who studied classical ballet and modern dance, performed worldwide as a soloist until forming the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982 with his late partner Arnie Zane, starting out as a brash duo doing “these odd grappling duets.” He has worked prodigiously since then, creating over 100 works, including tackling racism and faith in Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, exploring those with AIDS in Still/Here and creating a hip-hop adaptation of an Aeschylus play in The Seven. He recently completed Fondly We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray, a touring dance-theater piece to celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Stephen Hendel, who co-concieved Fela! with Jones and Lewis, says Jones is a man of “fierce genius” and “the most brilliant person I’ve ever met.” “He’s never satisfied with the easy answer. He’s never satisfied with his first thought or his second thought or his eighth thought,” says Hendel. “He’s able to see things that an ordinary person can’t see.” Jones has won nearly every major dance award – including a Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize and a Tony in 2007 for his choreography of Spring Awakening. He was also a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient in 1994. “I’ve been given a lot of awards and so on, but I’m certainly never an artist who sits back on his laurels,” he says. “I always have questions about what I’m doing.” Asked what links his pieces – what can an audience expect from a typical Bill T. Jones production? – and Jones narrows his eyes just a fraction before taking the bait. “You might see an interest in language. You might see diversity on the stage. You might find there’s a preoccupation with justice, even with its negative – the absence of justice. You might see memory, repetitions – things that you hear in one scene suddenly show up unexpectedly in another scene,” he says. “And you’ll see a lovely and interesting design – always. And you’ll see a very energetic performance.” This year, Jones is celebrating his company’s 25th anniversary and he marvels that when it began, he and his partner were dismissed as just the flavor of the month. "Well, lo and behold, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is still around. Who knows what tomorrow brings, but there’s something there," he says. "You never tempt the gods by thinking you’re going to have a next year." AP

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