Saving A Life Through Art: Bill T. Jones Creates A Work Inspired By His Nephew

Jan 4, 2018

Update: The scheduled performance by Bill T. Jones at the Arsht Center has been canceled because of weather.

A few years ago, Bill T. Jones thought there was a good chance his nephew Lance was going to die. He was so sick. Bill T. Jones is hugely influential — as a choreographer and dancer, a writer and thinker — and when he thought his nephew was dying, he wanted to make sure his story stayed in the world. 

Lance Briggs had been a promising performer. As a kid, he studied with the San Francisco Ballet and later Jones helped him get a scholarship to the Ailey School. As a teenager, Briggs lived with Jones and his late partner Arnie Zane for a while, and he hoped to join the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. His life took a different turn: Drug addiction led to sex work, time in prison, an AIDS diagnosis. He eventually became a paraplegic. 

That story is shifting. Briggs is clean now and not as sick, and he had a hand in the piece "Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist." (Pretty refers to an alter ego Briggs imagined in prison.) At the moment when Jones thought his nephew might be very close to death, he recorded more than 30 hours of conversations with him. He'd done this before for an earlier piece too, talking with his Jewish mother-in-law about surviving the Holocaust and about her family members who did not survive. Both sets of oral histories formed the basis for pieces in the "Analogy" trilogy.

Bill T. Jones
Credit Philip Habib

The fact that he [Lance] became paralyzed, how did that factor in your thinking in terms of making a dance performance that reflected his life?

It seemed perfect. It seemed like the ultimate irony. You have to realize that when my nephew tells me the story of being a young black boy in San Francisco going to the San Francisco School of Ballet on a scholarship, and my chagrin when he stopped, I felt, here is the great American tragedy. Those of us who are aspiring to be middle class black people — and he was being given a free ticket to train, so I thought that he didn't understand how valuable it was, being that he was [an] "at risk kid." And I thought he was saved, that art would save him. But it did not.

Then there is the irony of my aspirations, with Arnie Zane, my [late] companion and spouse, having built this company out of the same troubled milieu that we're all living through right now — racism, sexism — and we have been able to make an organization that expressed my belief that art could save us.

Were you ever a dance teacher to him?

Well, no. I was never a dance teacher [to him]. ... He was studying ballet, and I was doing my own particular brand of contemporary dance. He wanted to be a member of the company, but it never worked out. And I think that he felt that I didn't want him enough.

But the greatest compliment he paid me I suppose ... was that when he was a little boy there were two people he looked up to: Michael Jackson and his Uncle Bill. So he didn't make the distinction. He didn't have the same snobbishness that I do — in his way of thinking it was all dance. And in a way it is, but that was something that we really didn't understand about each other. And then lo and behold, at this point in his life when his dancing life is beyond him, he is now that the subject in one of my works.

Did you talk to him about making this piece before you made it?

"Art promises to shed light, a healthy, nourishing light, on a life like his." - Bill T. Jones

Yes we did. And matter of fact I sent him all of the transcripts, and I sent him the recordings of our conversations. And I told him that this is going to be the basis of the work that I'm making. And what's more — this was one of our first conversations when he got out of jail — was that in jail he had conceived that he was going to write a show called "Welcome to the Pretty Show: the Ugly Truth." So I said, "Well, where is it?" Because I'm always prodding him to not dream, but show me. And he said, "Well, I have it." And I said, "Well, send me something." So I finally, after quite a bit of cajoling, I got two pages.

So I told him, "We would like to actually use a bit of your play in my work." So it's a work within a work. I did this to provoke him. "OK, I'm going to quote you in this show. But you've still got to write your show." He's got to make his own show. My show is not his show. The unspoken contract was ... he's making me this gift, but I can't finish his work. He loved that. And with that came some songs that he had written. ... One section of the piece is called "The Shadow Life." He does not have to live in the shadow life anymore. Art promises to shed light, a healthy, nourishing light, on a life like his. 

There's something so moving about the collaborative aspect of this performance. Lance, your nephew, grew up really wanting to be part of your company. He saw himself as eventually getting to be part of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and now after everything that he's been through, he really is collaborating with you in a sense, in this piece.

(laughs) It's true; it's true. He acknowledges that. "You know, I've always wanted to work with you, Uncle, and I'm so glad that this is the way we're doing it right now."

Watch the trailer for this work. Conversation continues below.

How did that make you feel to hear that?

Uh, I felt happy. I felt a little — of course there's regret. You know, there was a time when everything was possible. He was younger, I was younger, we were trying to be a family. Literally, he was touring with me and Arnie. I'd be in full makeup and ready to go onstage, and I'm trying to homeschool him, you know. And he was really unruly. You just don't travel with someone else's 14-, 15-year-old. It was my naivete.

He wanted to dance in the company. But I said to him, "Look at the people in the company. Some of them have been dancing since they were 4 or 5 years old. Some of them have gone to conservatories. Because you're my nephew, you just don't get plucked into this."

If I had it to do all over again, would I have taken that on? I think I might have. It might have been foolish considering that Arnie was ill, and all this. It was A LOT for a man and a woman to be dealing with a 14-year-old boy of his personality. Here I am, a man who has a companion who is suffering and would subsequently die. I would like to have thought that I could do them both. But I was not able to. And that was tough. He was angry about that. He didn't understand. He felt rejected.

So — now we're making this piece, and we're making it on my terms. We're talking about a 42-year-old man here. We're not talking about a 15-year-old boy. ... Now he is quite proud of the work actually. ... He shows it to people as if this is a picture of him. I said, "Lance, you realize of course this is impressionistic. This is my take, my portrait of you. What is your portrait of you?" Um, that is another ongoing conversation.

How has making this piece changed your relationship with your nephew?

It's a big question, you know, because our relationship is sometimes, in our quieter moments, we've been able to own it. And I say, "Look Lance, I'm not your parent. Yes, I am your uncle. But more than that, I want to be a person that you tell the truth to. And I'm going to be sometimes a son of a bitch, because I am your coach.

We speak every Sunday and ... I don't know if you've ever dealt with a person who has an addiction, but just the consistency of it. "Lance, you've got to call me. I'm not chasing you." This is what we are both committed to. This is our loving. I hope it comes through in these works.

Having the relationship that has evolved between the two of you, even if it wasn't what you imagined 30 years ago, it sounds like it's evolved into something that's very important probably for both of you.

Oh, it is. And it's evolving. I am not a saint, and I tell him — and this takes a lot with an ego like mine, to say "You know, I need you to succeed for me." And this sounds selfish, but I say "I see a mirror in you. I want to bet on you. I want to make a piece, as I say in 'Analogy/Lance,' of a picture of a man who is saving his life through art. Are you with me?" He says, "Yes, I'm with you, Uncle."