Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How about a little less Bill?

Actual listing for Bill Chats
from, February 13, 2014:
Bill T. Jones sits across noted artists in a series of talks.
Last Sunday evening, I attended Bill Chats: When did the avant-garde become black?--a two-hour panel discussion hosted and moderated by Bill T. Jones at New York Live Arts. Since then, I've largely kept my own counsel as I sorted out thoughts that progressed from ambivalence to outright dismay.

From these "chats" to Jones's ambitious Live Ideas event series--last year, inspired by Oliver Sacks; this time by James Baldwin--it's clear that Jones intends to place his singular mark on the entity now known as New York Live Arts. He's steering it out into broader, deeper, more intellectually heady and political waters and aims to attract a sophisticated audience not necessarily affiliated with contemporary dance. I think good things can come of this for dance as well as for those smart newcomers to the art, although it has the potential to rattle and possibly alienate the more tightly focused folks in our dance community.

I do like this potential encounter and overlapping of worlds; it mirrors my own interests. I'm even more excited about the Baldwin programming for Live Ideas than I was about the Sacks series, but what I saw of Bill Chats worries me.

I'll step out in front of this and just say it: It's not a "chat" if you're hectoring your guests and some of your audience members. It's not a "chat" if you invite the following extraordinary panelists--

Ishmael Houston-Jones
Bebe Miller
Adrienne Edwards
Dianne McIntyre
Charmaine Warren
Ralph Lemon
Brenda Dixon Gottschild

--each of whom is a living archive and then get so caught up in your own button-pushing agenda, your own history, and your own sense of being stereotyped or slighted that you rarely take time to tap the considerable knowledge that your guests possess. That's a Murderer's Row of experience, scholarship and sensibilities just sitting around you, Mr. Jones, hardly utilized.

How useful is this self-declared role of "provocateur"--everything "said with a wink and a 'fuck you' smile," as Jones would have it--in the long run? Curtly dismissing Ralph Lemon's analysis in his opening statement--why? because there wasn't enough "feeling" in it?--was not cool and felt disrespectful. Suddenly putting John Jasperse on the spot, as a white choreographer sitting in the audience, really wasn't cool either. Cryptic shoutouts to the soon-departing Carla Peterson--"I'm doing it right now, Carla!"--sound just ill-tempered. These behaviors don't actually advance discussion of complex issues. They are merely showy and rude.

A chat is also not a performance. A performance is not a chat.

In other words, it is so not about you.

For future Bill Chats, please let the panelists breathe. Give them room to stretch and run. You cannot choreograph their voices, and you should not try.

We show up because we want to hear what they have to say.

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