Famous US choreographer's impressionistic take on Singapore

American choreographer Bill T. Jones is working with Lasalle College of the Arts students to make A Letter/Singapore.
American choreographer Bill T. Jones is working with Lasalle College of the Arts students to make A Letter/Singapore.PHOTO: IAN DOUGLAS

Storied American choreographer Bill T. Jones helms a production with dance students here for the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), in a coup akin to having Morgan Freeman teach and direct budding actors.

A Letter/Singapore is "an impressionistic take" on modern Singapore and runs from Thursday to Saturday at Lasalle College of the Arts' Singapore Airlines Theatre. The production features 22 students from the college's dance cohort along with professionals from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.

Jones, 64, will not perform, but will give a "talking solo" on his creative process tomorrow evening at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road. Admission is free with a ticket to A Letter/Singapore.

In an e-mail interview, he explains that A Letter/Singapore arises from last year's A Letter To My Nephew, which he was asked to re-create as part of his residency at Sifa.

  • BOOK IT /A LETTER/ SINGAPORE

  • WHERE: The Singapore Airlines Theatre, Lasalle College of the Arts, 1 McNally Street

    WHEN: Thursday to Saturday, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $25,$40and $55 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg). Tickets are selling fast

However, he felt a re-creation would be irrelevant to the audience and performers here. Context is important to the much-decorated choreographer, whose identity as gay and African-American challenged conservative, white audiences when he began performing in the 1970s.

A Letter To My Nephew follows the writings of African-American novelist James Baldwin in moving from the personal to a wider perspective of the world. Jones' grief over a bedridden nephew in Florida leads to images of social unrest. When he was creating the work in Paris, there was increased rage against immigrants. In Florida at that time, there were protests against policemen targeting African-American men in poor neighbourhoods.

Ironically, the work created for Paris was never fully appreciated. Its second performance took place on the same night terrorists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) massacred civilians in the Bataclan theatre. "The following night's performance was cancelled and it has never been performed again," Jones says.

A Letter/Singapore tries to be representative of modern Singapore - within reason. He says: "I have visited and performed in Singapore only briefly twice, so this is not intended to be any sort of analysis of the city, but an impressionistic take on it superimposed on... (a) Frida Kahlo-like image of my nephew's present circumstances."

His nephew was a dancer, but is now paralysed by illness. "His circumstance as a young black man struggling with - among other things - health, is represented by the music of his youth and imagery that haunts him as he is no longer able to move, as he once did, in the streets and on stages both real and imagined."

Jones' work ranges from the hauntingly political to energetic Broadway choreography. He received two Tony Awards for Spring Awakening (2007) and Fela! (2010), which he co-conceived, co-wrote and co-directed.

For his contributions to dance, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2009 and, a year later, received the Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government. Other American honours include the National Medal of Arts (2013) and a 1994 MacArthur Genius Award.

He studied classical ballet and modern dance at the State University of New York at Binghamton and in 1982 formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company with the late dancer-choreographer Zane. The company is today a byword for innovation in contemporary dance and has performed in more than 200 cities in 40 countries.

His collaborators include his husband Bjorn Amelan, creative director, set designer and sculptor; and Janet Wong, associate artistic director. Wong generates the movement in Jones' work along with members of his dance company and is a key creator of A Letter/Singapore. Musicians Nick Hallett (composer), Matthew Gamble (opera-trained baritone) and DJTonyMonkey provide the sound for the work.

"Before every performance, the collaborators, company, Janet and I stand in a circle and perform a simple centring/community building ritual of stretching, bending and breathing together," Jones says.

"I dance less, direct more. My dancing is restricted to special events."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Famous US choreographer's impressionistic take on Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe