Bill T. Jones does not shy away from complexity. In his sparkling career as a dancer, choreographer, author, and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co. spanning more than four decades, Jones has taken on such hefty topics as racism, death, homosexuality, and AIDS. In his current work, A Letter to My Nephew, Jones seeks to understand the life and world of his talented and tormented nephew, Lance T. Briggs. At age eight, Briggs was given a scholarship to a prestigious ballet school in San Francisco, only to abandoned his training and fall into a life of prostitution and drug addiction, eventually becoming paraplegic.
In this piece, Jones says that he invites the audience to “eavesdrop on an intergenerational conversation which is very personal. It is my essay about what the world looks like through my eyes thinking of him.” Exploring topics such as personal safety, black bodies, and high and low art, A Letter to My Nephew does not provide answers, but rather inhabits those sometimes uncomfortable spaces in between where ideas are still in formation.
A free-association collage of classic and contemporary genres
The experience for the audience can be jarring—you will wander through a free-association collage, observing dancers reckoning with their identities and life paths, and encountering vastly different and yet quintessentially American dance and musical genres, all blanketed within a recorded backdrop of video clips, snatches of conversation, laughter, and applause. The fiendishly talented dancers effortlessly transition from hip hop styles, to ballet-inspired modern dance, to street fighting, to catwalking, and back again, leaving the audience breathlessly wondering what might come next.
Choreographed in 2015 during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, many dancers would go straight from rehearsal to demonstrations while preparing for the production. This history creates an observable tension—the audience can understand both the dancers’ pride in their own diverse racial, cultural, and sexual identities and their palpable longing for acceptance—, making the piece a poignant plea for tolerance in these extremely divisive times.
Postcards from Detroit
While touring with A Letter to My Nephew, Jones learns about each city he travels to and then shares his thoughts with Briggs in postcards. The notes from these postcards are projected onto large square canvases that are, at intervals, carried by the dancers across the stage. Both on stage and in the creation of the piece, location matters, and, in that sense, the piece is site-specific.
Briggs was near death during rehearsals of the piece, but, as Jones says in one of his postcards from Detroit, “Like this city, you rise.” The performance closes with a video recording of Briggs performing a rousing rap about the ups and downs of his exceptional life and anticipated return to greatness, inspiring the audience to hope with him for a similar return to greatness for Detroit, for Michigan, and for this country.
A Letter to my Nephew was performed one night only, on October 27th, 2018, at the Detroit Opera Theater. For a complete listing of their 2018-2019 season, visit michiganopera.org/season-schedule/.