What to think of Martin Luther King’s ‘We shall overcome’ in times when the divisions between groups in the United States – and around the world – only seem to be growing? As Holland Festival associate artist, Bill T. Jones came up with the unifying theme In pursuit of the we. He asked himself: how do we create a community? What is it that connects people and makes one say to another: I wish to be a part of your world? He based this theme, among other things, on ‘We the people’ from the American constitution and on Martin Luther King’s ‘We shall overcome’. However, in light of the corona epidemic, which hits vulnerable groups especially hard, and the ongoing police violence against the black community, Jones wonders how realistic this ‘we’ just is. He feels betrayed by King’s promise because: ‘We did not overcome’. Led by moderator Ikenna Azuike, Jones talks with writer Ellen Ombre, visual artist Melanie Bonajo and activist/choreographer Naomie Pieter, about communities, ecology, vulnerability and inequality in times of social distancing. There will be a music intermezzo by violinist Yannick Hiwat.
Choreographer, dancer, director and writer Bill T. Jones (1952, United States) studied classical ballet and modern dance at the State University of New York in the 1970s.
After having lived in Amsterdam for a time, Jones and his partner Arnie Zane joined the experimental choreographers’ collective American Dance Asylum. In 1982 they founded Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Jones created more than a hundred works for his company, and in addition he has had large-scale works commissioned by major companies such as the Boston Ballet, the Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon and the Staatsballett Berlin. Since 2011 he has been the artistic director of New York Live Arts in Manhattan.
Jones has become increasingly interested in other disciplines, such as literature and musical theatre. He also perceives that as the body changes with age, dance changes and so do, he says, ‘your ambitions as an artist... I think older artists have a wider range. They do more with less, so in that sense they’re more strategic and stronger.’
His relationship with the Holland Festival goes back to 1981, with Valley Cottage, one of the duets that Jones and Arnie Zane had created in The Kitchen in New York. Works such as D-Man in the Waters (1991) and the controversial and confrontational production Still Here (1996) were frequently presented in the Netherlands between 1991 and 2007 by Het Muziektheater as part of their guest programming series.
In 2011 the Holland Festival presented his award-winning musical Fela!, and in 2019 the Opera Forward Festival presented the opera We Shall Not Be Moved, which Jones directed and choreographed. This year he is an associate artist with the Holland Festival, where several of his works will be presented, including the large-scale, ambitious Deep Blue Sea.
Jones has received many awards for his multifaceted work, from a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award in 1994 to Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. He received the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award in 2014 and won a Tony for Best Choreography for his work on Spring Awakening (2007) and Fela! (2010). In 2010 the French government named him an ‘Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’; he has received honorary doctorates from the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College, Juilliard School, Yale University, and other institutions. In 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama and he received the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award in 2016.
The British-Nigerian Ikenna Azuike (1979) emigrated to London at the age of 8. He studied law at University College and graduated in 2002, then began his career with large law firms such as Shearman & Sterling and Clifford Chance, working in London, the United States and elsewhere. In 2008 he decided to make a radical change in his life. He moved to Amsterdam with his Dutch wife, and founded a creative agency for sustainability called Strawberry Earth.
In the Netherlands, he began as a trainee journalist with the Wereldomroep broadcasting company working on a radio programme called Bridges With Africa. Feeling that the picture of Africa painted by Western media lacked balance, he decided to develop a video blog. What’s Up Africa was inspired by Jon Stewart, the former host of the American satirical news shows The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The show was a huge success, running for six seasons on BBC World News and earning a nomination for an Association of International Broadcasters’ Award.
Azuike is a popular TEDx speaker, interviewer and moderator. In 2014 he was named one of the 100 most influential Africans by New African magazine. In the summer of 2019, the BNNVARA TV network broadcast his programme Planeet Nigeria, a 6-segment television series in which he explores his native country and the lives of normal Nigerians.
Naomie Pieter (1990, Netherlands) Naomie Pieter is a queer and anti-racist activist and performance artist whose work centers on making space for the intersections of those communities. She is the co-founder of Black Queer & Trans Resistance NL, co-founder of The Black Queer Archives and a member of the action political group: Kick Out Zwarte Piet. Pieter advocates for Pleasure activism within the BIPoC LGBTQI+ community, through her queer dancehall party Pon Di Pride. Through her artwork Pieter examines the Black female* body, Afro-spirituality, activism, and modern day emancipation. Pieter has recently won the 'Roze Lieverdje' for her work in the LGBTI+ community. Pieter has opened for performance artist Alok Vaid-Memon, performed at the Stedelijk Museum and this year she will be graduating from SNDO as choreographer/dancer.
Ellen Ombre (1948 Suriname) grew up in Suriname and The Netherlands. She published her first book with short stories in 1992 (Maalstroom), and continued publishing in 1994 (Vrouwvreemd) and 2000 (Valse Verlangens). She wrote about problematic development aid in an autobiographic log, and published stories and articles in various magazines and newspapers. Various stories were translated in English. Ombre is known for the way she deals with the theme of migration in her work. The complicated history of the Surinamese society, marked by 300 years of colonialism, plays an important role in it. Ombre was one of the first artists to write about the World Exhibition of 1883, when the Amsterdam people could see Surinamese people in their cabins. Her work Wie goed bedoelt, the story of her journey to Benin, reflects the complex relationship between West-Africa, The Netherlands and Surinam. Her new book Last (Burden) describes in fiction and non-fiction her research of the history of Jodensavanne in Surinam.
Melanie Bonajo (1978, The Netherlands) examines the paradoxes inherent to ideas of comfort with a strong sense for community, equality, feminism and body-politics. Through videos, performances, music, events, photographs, publications and installations, Bonajo studies subjects related to how technological advances and commodity-based pleasures increase feelings of alienation, removing a sense of belonging in an individual. Captivated by concepts of the divine, Bonajo explores the spiritual emptiness of their generation, examines peoples’ shifting relationship with nature and tries to understand existential questions by reflecting on ideas around classification, concepts of home, gender, sexuality and attitudes towards value. Bonajo is a somatic sex coach and holds a practice space related to embodiment together with friends called the Skinship in Berlin. Bonajo studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and has held residencies at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam and the International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York. Their work has been shown and performed at venues including the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht; Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt and Manifesta 12, Palermo. Bonajo represents the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice biennial 2022.