Interview with renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones ahead of world premiere of ‘What Problem?’ at Center for the Arts

Social commentary in a dance performance is not unusual, especially in the modern dance community. But in a week-long residency by The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company at George Mason University, there will be way more than a world premiere dance performance on the mainstage. Way more. 

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s ‘What Problem?’ Maria Baranova photography.

“We want to impact the community-at-large. We have a goal to be at the forefront of artistic performance and community connection,” said Adrienne Bryant Godwin, director of programming for the Center for the Arts at GMU.

The Center for the Arts is stepping out beyond its typical mainstage performing arts comfort zone with The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company as part of the new Mason Artists-in-Residence program. The Artists-in-Residence program has a calling to serve not only the Mason community but to engage with area residents. Those beyond the college campus.

As noted by Rick Davis, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at GMU, the undertaking is to make the arts an intrinsic part of the lives of both Mason students and Northern Virginia residents. 

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s residency at GMU will include the world premiere of dance work currently under final development. It is a work with a “prime time” social commentary called What Problem? For me, the dance title speaks of those who may not see what is happening right before them and can be dismissive of what’s going on as others scream to Heaven in pain. 

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s ‘What Problem?’ Maria Baranova photography.

Renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones will also be at the forefront of connecting with the off-campus community in a town hall conversation entitled Bill T. Jones: A Conversation on Community, Identity, and Art. The free off-campus event will be held at Old Town Hall in the City of Fairfax. 

A powerful innovator of expressive dance exploring social issues, Jones has been a groundbreaking leader in modern dance for decades. His numerous prestigious awards include the National Medal of Arts, a MacArthur Genius Award, The Kennedy Center Honors Award, and multiple Tony Awards.

Bryant Godwin considers the combination of a world premiere dance work and the community town hall conversation as a singular opportunity for students and the Northern Virginia community alike. 

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see one of the most creative minds develop and work in a premiere right here in Northern Virginia,” noted Bryant Godwin. “We are trying something very new. With What Problem? audiences will be able to see something no one has seen before, right on the Center for the Arts stage.” And they will also “be able to participate in an off-campus Town Hall meeting.”

What Problem? will be “beyond modern dance,” said Bryant Godwin. It is set to spoken word with original live music by Nick Hallett. The dance performance aims to spotlight identity. “What it means to belong to a community, yet have feelings of isolation especially during divisive times.” The dance is expected to feature text by Bill T. Jones and Mark Hairston featuring text excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Why Moby Dick? In Melville’s tale of Ahab’s search for the Great White Whale, Melville created the character of Pip, a young African-American ship-lad who becomes a prophetic character in the novel.

Pip reflects early on about the ‘big white God’ in the sky, asking that God to ‘have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!’” From there, Pip has ghastly encounters with the sea, the whale, a very small craft, and the men on board the ship Pequod who have little regard for him. Pip is a source of questions and confrontations on identity, survival, and pain.

In a lively phone conversation, Bill T. Jones described What Problem? as an “experimental work that is asking questions.” It is a dance work of “healing; to find cultural unity…while seeking truth” during these divisive times. The dance will ask “Is there a We?” right now. The new work is aiming for the “community to discover who are they and what they might think” about identity and history. It will have a specific Northern Virginia outlook. 

Jones added that What Problem? will have “a beautiful design; a pleasurable experience for the eyes, the heart, and the mind.” There will be three sections to the dance performance. First will be Jones in solo performance; then Jones alongside members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. Finally a unique concluding segment with Bill T. Jones and the company onstage with 30 participants from the Northern Virginia community. The community participants will represent the diversity, equity, and inclusion that is Northern Virginia. 

Our conversation then moved to the Town Hall meeting. Underpinning the Town Hall will be issues related to race in America. 

Jones described himself as being “capable of disruption; and being a healer and approachable.” He added that he was “a man, a Black man, a gay man.” It is critical to go off-campus, said Jones, beyond the performing arts stage, so as not to become “self-involved.” Jones went on to ask rhetorically if “truth is fungible?” 

At this point in time, Jones is expected to be joined in the Town Hall with Franklin Dukes, Ph.D., who is a mediator and facilitator within the Institute for Engagement & Negotiation and founded University & Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE) at the University of Virginia, and Wendi-Manuel Scott, who is an Associate Professor in Integrative Studies and the Department of History/Art History at GMU, focusing on race, gender, the African American experience, and the history of black women in the Atlantic World. 

In these current times of heightened social and cultural divisiveness, Town Hall with Bill T. Jones: A Conversation on Community, Identity, and Art and What Problem? aim to be intoxicating sources for invigorating, potent social commentary.

Town Hall with Bill T. Jones: A Conversation on Community, Identity, and Art at Old Town Hall, 3999 University Dr, Fairfax, VA on Wednesday, January 29, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. This off-campus community event at the Old Town Hall is free; reservations are requested. For reservations, go online.

What Problem? by The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company at Center for the Arts, George Mason University Concert Hall, 4373 Mason Pond Drive, Fairfax, VA on Saturday, February 1, 2020 at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 703-993-2787 or go online


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