Bill’s Blog: Irony, Aesthetic Arrest and What the Fuck Do You Care?​


This is the first in a new series of monthly blog posts–penned by Bill T. Jones– designed to provide further insight into his creative process, inspirations and more.




At the invitation of Gotham Opera’s Artistic Director and Conductor, Neal Goren, Bjorn and I attended that company’s gala performance of a new work, The Tempest Songbook, at the Metropolitan Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.

Photo: Richard Termine

Photo: Richard Termine

The event, staged and choreographed by Luca Veggetti and danced by the Martha Graham Dance Company, consisted of a two person song-cycle alternating contemporary compositions by Kaija Saariaho with Henry Purcell’s 1712 version of Shakespeare’s play.

Sparseness and intimacy were the organizing principles of the evening. These qualities triumphed through the work’s instrumentation and choreography for four dancers.

It was during the first solo for a breath-taking androgynous dancer, PeiJu Chien-Pott, that I found myself pondering the meaning of the notion “ravishing” and later “aesthetic arrest.”

This solo, like all the dancing in the event, lead me to remark later (I hope this didn’t sound like a criticism of other productions of theirs which I did not mean) that this was the event that Miss Graham herself would have wished for her ensemble so many years after her death. The archaic tableaux, the beautiful carving of shapes by the dancers, the atmosphere of ancient ritual, contemporary elements of musical composition, evocative video and lighting made everything fresh and, somehow for me, encouraging.

Earlier that day, while coaching NYU’s Second Avenue Dance Company in Ravel: Landscape or Portrait?, a work I created in 2012 with Janet Wong and my company, I was admiring the nine dancers’ facility and skill. At one point, I chuckled uneasily and, turning towards Seàn Curran (Chair of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Department of Dance), said, “What was I thinking?!”

What indeed?

I think I was questioning the level of irony in the work’s juxtaposition of stately groupings, lunges and near hyper-active clusters of bodies forming and fragmenting pictures and rushing madly through “the flipbook,” a recurring motif of dancers sharing a single phrase.

I saw two casts run the piece that afternoon, before joining Janet Wong (who has so effectively restaged the work), to give notes. I was concerned that the work, intended to be a grand, music-driven occasion all held in ironic quotation marks of style, had slipped over into being too neo-classical for its own good. By the end of the note session, however, I was reassured that both groups could refocus their attack, and eliminate some of the indulgences of flying legs, florid arms, heads tossed in ecstasy, and lushness where there should be dryness, allowing the piece to return to my originally intended spiky, athletic, thoughtful confrontation with the fevered, stately and sometimes turgid composition of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major (1903).


At one moment, I teased the dancers (at least I think I was teasing), saying that the piece was a post-modern dicing and slicing of styles – Miss Graham, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Alvin Ailey, etc.  – and that their neo-classical earnestness was a threat. I confessed that this work was yet another late attempt of mine to resolve and secure a response to these venerable choreographers and their legacies. Judging by their faces I could tell these young dancers were unsure what they were being charged with. Unsure myself, I barreled on saying, “Your generation does not give a fuck about these formal concerns, do they?” I was being ironic, of course. Still after a moment of uneasiness, one young man whispered, “No, we don’t!” and several others nodded their heads in agreement.

Strange conversation…? Yes, certainly! I am certain they will do justice to the work, and hopefully the work will do justice to them. In the meantime, like it or not, my lifelong obsession with the meaning of style and the burden of history continues.

Oh, yes, I looked up “aesthetic arrest” and came up with the following link. You might enjoy reading it…

Looking forward to seeing you during Laurie Anderson’s curated Live Ideas Festival, Sky – Force and Wisdom in America Today.

– Bill T. Jones