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Release: Oct. 20. 2000


Bill T. Jones calls Hancher Millennium Festival 'a guiding light'

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Bill T. Jones took stock of his provocative career in the world premiere of "The Breathing Show -- Bill T. Jones Solo," on Oct. 23, 1999, as part of Hancher Auditorium’s Millennium Festival at the University of Iowa. Now, a year later, after dancing the work throughout the United States and Europe, he has paused to take stock of the Millennium Festival, which was the most extensive and ambitious performing-arts millennium celebration in the United States.

"I feel that Hancher Auditorium with its Millennium Festival has become a guiding light to the performing arts of this era because of its commitment to commissioning," Jones says. "Both artists and presenters are beleaguered and anxious about the scarcity of resources. The concerns of marketing in order to increase sales and attendance often overshadow the vital activity of creating new works.

"Hancher has proven itself expert at turning a community on to the experience of live performance and now, it is making that same community an arena wherein new works come into existence. I call this visionary and supremely reasonable. I feel privileged to have been allowed to have an ongoing dialogue with the Johnson County community. There are few places where I feel so understood in terms of the depth and breadth of my interests and output, thanks to Hancher’s commitment to commissioning my works."

Jones rarely performed in the years leading to "The Breathing Show," working instead primarily as a choreographer and artistic director. Jones’ stated intention for "The Breathing Show" was to revisit his roots as a dancer: He has described "The Breathing Show" as "taking a big step back to the time when I was 19 and a young dancer who wanted to fly." The work combined movement, film and spoken text to "take a breath" at a crossroads in Jones’ artistic career.

At the point of the Hancher premiere, Jones still considered the piece a work in progress with which he was far from satisfied, and he recorded his personal response in a journal that was later excerpted in the New York Times.

"After the show, I am prostrate on the dressing room floor," he wrote in a section headlined "Oct. 23. Hancher Auditorium, Iowa City " "The premiere finished minutes ago and I am pondering the dilemma I find myself in: There is no personal payoff in this sequence of events, no catharsis, no orgasm. Without my glasses I couldn’t tell, but I hear the audience jumped to its feet at the end of the Mozart. And yet, I am still asking, where is my satisfaction."

A few days later in New York, responding to a negative assessment of the piece by the director of Lincoln Center, he mused, "I’ve always believed that any action done with a sufficient level of consciousness and commitment is never wasted. However, can I afford emotionally or professionally to have my most essential aspect, my own performance, suffer such devaluation?
I don’t think so. What are my options? Cancel the show? Impossible and cowardly. Rework the existing material even though we are beginning a demanding tour? This is the only option."

He took this challenge to Rome and Milan, Italy; London, England; Leverkusen, Germany; and Amsterdam, Holland, before returning to the United States for engagements in Berkeley and
Los Angeles, Calif.; Lawrence, Kan.; Boston, Mass.; Lincoln, Neb.; Newark and Princeton, NJ; Washington, DC and Chicago, Ill. The tour concluded in New York at Lincoln Center.

By the end of November in Italy, after several emotional ups and downs, he wrote optimistically in response to the changes he had made: "After the Hancher Auditorium premiere of ‘The Breathing Show,’ I was depressed and despairing at just how unsatisfied I had felt with the evening. Now, having injected songs, ad-libbed transitions, more of my personality, I feel more complete at the end of each show. More satisfied."

The English website commented on his London performances, "The show tries to give us some sense of what it is like to be the charming, intelligent and gifted Mr. Jones, and it achieves this successfully and with much elegance."

The critic of Ballet Magazine found the work "makeshift and unstructured," but also wrote, "Although he has a strong muscular look -- his arms are particularly sculptured -- he dances easily with gentle undulating movements and yet which are almost robot-like at times. There is great warmth about it all and one feels almost hypnotized by the poses. And he uses his eyes on you too! Very magnetic and charismatic."

Jones has forged one of the most celebrated and controversial careers in contemporary dance, often developing ambitious projects that unflinchingly confronted personal issues of race, faith, sexual orientation and disease.

In 1994 Jones was honored with a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," and among his many other honors are National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, "Bessie" Awards and the Dance Magazine Award. In 1995 he published the memoir "Last Night on Earth."

Iowa has played a prominent role in Jones’ creative life. Residencies at the Cedar Arts Forum in Waterloo/Cedar Falls and at the UI led to a series of Hancher commissions, including "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land" and "Still/Here." "Still/Here," which addressed the challenges of living with terminal illness, was based on "survival workshops" conducted in Iowa City and several other locations around the country. The images and words of Iowans facing life-threatening illnesses played a prominent role in the production, which received its U.S. premiere in Hancher. The project was the subject of a PBS special by Bill Moyers, partially videotaped at the UI.

Hancher’s season-spanning Millennium Festival featured more than 20 major commissions in music, theater and dance. The commission of "The Breathing Show -- Bill T. Jones Solo" was supported by Gerald J. and Sandra G. Eskin, through the University of Iowa Foundation, and by the National Endowment for the Arts.