The Site of the Memory, History
'History has rules. One rule dictates that a people whose identity has been forged by violence and deprivation will manifest violence and deprivation. Such rules must be broken.'
- Bill T. Jones, Last Night on Earth
Since Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990), the first of a long and complex series of works, Jones has been developing a dance-theater spectacle that is monumental, both in scope and aspiration, and in its choreographic agency.
All throughout his career Jones has transformed his activity of avid reader into a collective practice of inquiry; first with his company as central to their creative process, then with the audience. Interrogating a text, attempting to bring new questions while remembering, analyzing, and creating a new work, becomes a demanding methodology of citizenship powerfully articulated through dance. Spectators are taken to many journeys, based on their own empathic and knowledgeable receptivity, imagination, and ability to move along, perhaps even repositioning themselves.
Jones’ performances, built through the superimposition and juxtaposition of meanings, often bring onto the stage classic American novels, or touchstone documents of American history – from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Melville’s Moby Dick, from O’Connor’s The Artificial Nigger to Baraka’s The Dutchman, from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream. Revisiting some classics, and re-visiting them again, is a way to exhaust unanswered questions and reveal more subliminal meanings, part of a cultural, and often times hurtful, imprint. A way to deal with what Toni Morrison called national amnesia.
In Serenade/The Preposition (2008) and Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray (2009), for instance, invited by the Ravinia Festival in celebration of Lincoln bicentennial, Jones complicates the story of Lincoln as the heroic President during the civil war, by challenging his own memory and preconceptions, and drawing Lincoln, into the complex and still painful reality of current race relations in America.
In Blind Date (2005), through a collage of stories Jones explores the repercussions of war on individuals, the meaning of patriotism in our time, our sense of civics and ethics. Members of the company – Erick Montes from Mexico, Asli Bulbul from Turkey, and Lin Wen-Chung from Taiwan – contribute to the global puzzle of what their national anthems mean to them, in their mother tongues and with their own dancing.
There is always a symbolic and subversive use in Jones’ employing of 'nomadic memories' – such as Dora Amelan’s or Lance T. Briggs’, in Analogy: Dora Tramontane (2015), Analogy/Lance Aka the Escape Artist, or his dancers’ – as a way to destabilize the exclusive, dominant narrative of history. As the stage becomes a place to creatively re-enact history and re-tell stories, it also allows for re-dreaming possibilities of freedom.