Choreographer, dancer, writer, director and winner of many awards and honors, Bill T. Jones turned 60 earlier this year. But he's still the most fit, most chiseled man in this room, which is filled mostly with college students who are 40 years his junior.
Jones is in Dance Studio 3 at Cal State Long Beach for an all-day rehearsal of his 2003 dance piece, Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger. In November, 12 students will perform the 45-minute work (plus Jones' companion piece, Mercy 10 X 8 on a Circle). It will be the first time a group other than Jones' New York-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company has performed the piece, which is based on the Flannery O'Connor short story, The Artificial Nigger.
Several of Jones' dancers and CSULB dance professor Keith Johnson, a former company member, began teaching and rehearsing the work with the students a month ago. Jones flew in last weekend for a day and a half of rehearsals. Time is precious.
He double-checks the spacing of bodies. He points with a thrusting arm at offending moves. He explains the importance of absolute exactitude of every body position and of moving with “urgency.” He calls every student by name. He jumps up and occasionally demonstrates steps, standing utterly immobile as he watches them repeat it back to him. He wants to know “who's responsible for that” so he's assured that after he leaves, there is a shepherd assigned to oversee every passage.
“Cue!” he calls, to signal that everyone starts moving.
“Are they in control of the material?” he asks his main assistant, Leah Cox, the company's education director.
And he tells stories that surprise, such as how when he first choreographed this dance — performed to an abridged version of the 1955 tale. “I was so nervous about doing a narrative. I thought narratives were corny.” He's not afraid of narrative now, though, and he changes some steps and gestures, including making subtle revisions to the dance's very last pose.
A support team surrounds Jones. Johnson sits to his left, Cox to his right, and Ezra LeBank, the theater department's head of movement (who is supervising the student narrators) sits next to Cox. Dance major Katie Marshall, one of two understudies, lies on the floor with an open notebook, notating script and movement changes. Across the room, student Gabby Grady turns the music on and off and serves as stage manager. Cox holds a MacBook Pro, occasionally checking a recording of a past performance.
After nearly two hours of tightening and polishing, it's time for another runthrough. Cox reassures the students that it will be difficult, but they should try to remember and incorporate all the revisions just made. Jones leans back in the plastic folding chair, long legs outstretched and arms folded.
He's poised that way only briefly, and is soon leaning left, then right, giving notes, making comments. The students push themselves to become dancers. Their shirts are drenched; the room has a sweaty odor.
“Christopher is very subtle,” Jones says with pleasure. Then, they have finished.
The briefest of pauses, and Jones is applauding, smiling, laughing, and congratulating. So do the others.
“Good work, good work! You took your notes well,” he praises them.
Do they have questions? he wants to know. Then he explains further about this story of mercy, fear, love and racism. Then it's time to go and Jones personally shakes hands and grins at each student.
“Anyways, thank you very much!”
In Collaboration: Bill T. Jones and the CSULB Department of Dance will take place at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach, 8 p.m. Nov. 16-17, $25, (562) 985-7000, www.Carpenterarts.org