They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
Bill T. Jones knows all of "And death shall have no dominion" by heart. This comes as no surprise; a true lover of language, he's choreographed to monologues and interrupted his dancing to speak directly to the audience.
In a rehearsal for his company's upcoming season at the Joyce, Jones plays the triple role of performer, choreographer, and artistic director, but he is also a teacher. Bespectacled, 24 years older than some of his dancers, he speaks with benevolent authority. "Small and eccentric details are the virtuosity in the material," he explains, as they practice a suite to Thomas's own readings of "Ballad of the Long-legged Bait," "Lament," "This Side of the Truth," "Poem in October" and others. Thomas's sonorous tones bellow through the theater, the ebbs and flows of his intonations providing melody and rhythm.
"It seems magisterial, so completely committed to poetry as this rich public language that comes from the deep recesses," Jones rhapsodizes. He embraces Thomas's writing, discussing it as articulately as he does his own work. And he has his dancers studying the poems. "We're making a point of learning about the poetry, because it would be very easy to just talk of it as word cues and rhythm. Sometimes I stop everything and say, 'What do you think he's talking about?' I'm not attempting to dramatically interpret the poems, but I try to get some conversation going about him, and ask the dancers what they think the poetry means."
Jones carries on his love affair with language throughout this season, which is divided into two programs since the company has an abundance of material. "If someone's really interested in the work, they have to come two evenings." For the opening-night gala, he'll be joined by Laurie Anderson for a 10-minute duet entitled Bill and Laurie: About Five Rounds, in which Anderson rides Jones's back playing the violin and Jones dances while talking on the telephone.
Ursonate, a "45-minute romp-dialogue," he made collaboratively with Boston choreographer Darla Villani, is Jones's first company work since Still/Here. "I wanted to go full-heartedly back into movement and discover this company," three-quarters of which is new, some members added as recently as six months ago. Ursonate is set to a "defining sound poem" written by German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters in the 1920s. "There are no words, all syllables and sound, a cappella for one voice," to be recited live by Christopher Butterfield. "It's a wonderful, crazy, primeval-sounding thing."
The season includes Twenty-One (1983), a Jones solo restaged by Rosalynde LeBlanc to her own original text; a solo performed by new company member Alexandra Beller to Eric Dolphy's 1961 rendition of "God Bless the Child"; After Black Room (1993), Arnie Zane's 1983 duet ruminating on Robert Mapplethorpe's portraits of black men, restaged by Jones for four couples; New Duet (1995), set to an eclectic medley of Madagascan folk songs, a preaching televangelist, and a version of "Kyrie"; and Love Re-Defined (1992), with haunting tunes sung by composer Daniel Johnston in a cracking, childlike voice, accompanied by toy instruments.
"I've said this season was going to be an exploration of language, or near-language," says Jones. In his world, words move us, and dancing speaks.