In addition to being an incredible artist, Bill T. Jones is a good man. The words “please” and “thank you” are used often when he speaks to the people around him. In America you don’t find many people like him anymore. His demeanor is from another time. Bill T. Jones inspires my art and soul.
Yesterday, I photographed a Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane rehearsal. Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant, is Bill T. Jones’ newest work, the third part of a trilogy including Analogy/Dora: Tramontane and Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist. As always, while Bill creates a new work, changes are made constantly to both movement and script. These pieces are complicated. In some ways they are like filling out yearly tax forms. If a change is made on the business C Form, several other forms need a simultaneous correction. It’s the ripple effect. When Bill adds a new paragraph to the script, movement and spacing need to fill the dialog along with new lighting cues and additional music or sound effects. I imagine it’s difficult and frustrating for the dancers. Working with Bill, almost every time a piece is rehearsed or performed there is a change that needs to be addressed. It’s not like Paul Taylor or George Balanchine where the choreography is set in stone. Their dances today are no different than they were thirty years ago.
At one point during today’s rehearsal, the dancers were struggling. The story had changed and after a few attempts Bill stopped the rehearsal, got up from his seat in theater and headed towards the stage, knowing he had to help the dancers work out the additional choreography and spacing. I imagine a thousand thoughts were streaming through his head, envisioning the movement of the dancers individually and as a whole. Climbing the steps to the stage, Bill turned back to the crew (sitting in the audience) and gave lighting instructions to the designer. It struck me how many things a choreographer needs to think about while creating a new dance. It’s much more than just the steps – costumes, lighting, sets, music – it is endless. I think the President has an easier job.
As Bill stepped on the stage, a sense of imminent dread and fear slowly filled my head. I’m beginning to choreograph my first dance. My initial tests, each with a different dancer, seemed so easy. I’m beginning to create my own choreographic language. The dance revolves around the physical movement developed during my Intimate Portrait shoots. In my mind I have a vision of the lighting and costumes. I can even see much of the spacing on the stage. There will be seven dancers, each doing a solo to sounds found in nature or the city. Heartbeats! Pairs of dancers will come together throughout the dance, sharing their sounds – heartbeat and subway, waves and laughter – ending with a group movement between the seven dancers. This final few minutes of choreography have not yet existed in my daydreams though the sound of the seven voices is beginning to develop in my head.
I knew the process of my dance, Heartbeat, wouldn’t be easy, but now it seemed impossible. I need to find dancers – so far I have three. I need to find and record the sounds – heartbeat, bird song, waves, laughter, subway – who knows what else? I need to raise money. I want to pay the dancers something for their time. So far they all seem happy just to be part of the process but this is not like a shoot where I can give them photographs at the end of a session. After a rehearsal, I have little to give them in return for their great efforts. And speaking of time, the rehearsal process for Heartbeat will be endless. I’m not a choreographer. I can’t throw movement on to the stage. I have to work out the very basics of my choreography before I have the dancers move across the dance floor. It will help that a large portion of Heartbeat is solo movement. I can figure out a rehearsal schedule for that. Trying to organize rehearsal time for the duets and the ending with seven dancers will likely be difficult. I should schedule those rehearsals after midnight. I don’t sleep anyway and the dancers should be free at that time! It would be good if the dancers are tired at the rehearsal. Exhausted bodies and minds are often at their most fluid state and I do want the piece to feel like a dream.
As I put down these thoughts on paper it doesn’t sound as scary as it felt a few minutes ago. I’m sitting in the front row of the theater at Purchase College, waiting for the rehearsal with Bill T. Jones to begin. Compared to what Bill is creating, my piece is nothing. My work is like an unformed embryo compared to Bill’s well thought out, adult human movement process. And that’s okay with me. We all begin life as an embryo.
I wonder if I see my art differently than Bill sees his. Maybe it’s that our working process is so different. I am mostly alone with one dancer, a few at most. My photo sessions are purely an art project. The dancers aren’t paid. Though I do hope to sell prints of my work, it is never on my mind while shooting. Bill has a real company with paid dancers and a crew. Tickets must be sold. Tours must be promoted. In the theater or rehearsal space he is god and it must be that way for the company to succeed. I don’t need to be god and I don’t have the right. Bill does.
We are both spontaneous. I believe that’s why Bill’s work is never really finished. When his work is performed it is complete. That’s something different. I believe we both see that there is always room for improvement, or at the very least, modified due to a change in personnel. For Bill, it’s a new dancer in the company. For me it’s a new muse. Sometimes it just has to do with my mind getting older, learning new things – more educated. I wonder if it’s the same for Bill? Either way, my life is easier.
When I photograph dance, I capture the creations of other artists, attempting to turn their art into something of my own. The interesting thing is I had this same thought process after shooting still photographs during my Heartbeat rehearsal with Sammy Roth. While filming the dance, I was creating movement and steps, thinking about how Sammy’s section of Heartbeat would evolve out on to a bigger stage. Afterwards, while taking the still photographs, I felt as if I was capturing a dance choreographed by some other person. The emotions of creating a dance and then capturing images of that dance were completely different.
Two days after my shoots with Bill T. Jones, I went to a talk at Steven Kasher Gallery. It was a discussion about Ted Russell’s photographs of Bob Dylan taken during a few photo sessions in the early 1960s, about the time Dylan recorded his first album with Columbia Records. The photographs were part of the current exhibition at Kasher. It was wonderful hearing about those times in The Village. The five people in the panel had all lived close to McDougal and Bleeker Streets, the heart of The Village during the years when folk music clubs took over the neighboring streets. One of the reasons I moved to New York City from Chicago were the stories I had heard about artists living in Greenwich Village. I moved in 1976, my first apartment at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue, a short walking distance from that scene. Of course it had all changed by 1976 but I will always remember my afternoons at Café Figaro, sipping steamed milk with Orzata and eating the most delicious cannolis on the planet.
The most interesting thing about this gallery talk was an “argument” between Ted Russell and John Cohen, a musician and photographer sitting on the panel as a guest speaker. Cohen had also photographed Dylan at that time. During the talk, Ted Russell said the photographs were spontaneous and undirected. Russell informed us, when Dylan asked what he and his girlfriend should do during the shoot, Russell asked them to ignore that he was there and go about their business. In Ted’s own words, while photographing “I was like a fly on the wall.”
John Cohen, who during the lecture was obviously jealous since he wasn’t the center of attention, directly told Ted, sitting right next to him, that the photographs in the exhibition looked “art directed.” That they were not natural. Worse, Mr. Cohen insinuated that because of this, the photographs had less artistic value. Cohen said he would never lower himself to shoot in that style!
There was a stunned silence in the audience. I believe we all needed time to think about the concept. Steven Kasher, owner of the gallery, said nothing. The thing is, John Cohen was right! In the exhibition, there were photographs of Dylan performing on stage and of course those were natural and undirected, but the portraits in Dylan’s apartment did have the appearance of a planned collaboration.
So what! The photographs of Dylan, those where he was aware of the camera, were the best images in the exhibition. In many ways, the rest were only fluff to fill up the walls in the room. There was one print in particular, featuring Dylan lounging on his bed, holding a guitar, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo stubbing out a cigarette in the nearby ashtray. The photograph is part of a short series Russell shot of the pair in bed. It’s obvious Dylan and Rotolo are engaged in conversation with other people in the room, their presence something Russell only acknowledged late in the discussion. It’s likely Dylan, Russell or possibly Rotolo suggested posing on the mattress with guitar in hand, near the nice light from the lamp on the shelf. It is entirely “art directed.” That becomes more obvious when viewing another image taken at nearly the same time, Dylan and Rotolo playing directly into the camera.
As Cohen continued to criticize Russell’s photographs, my thoughts drifted and I quickly wrote down a short note on a scrap of paper. It’s a thought I want to share with Steven Kasher. I’ll mail it to his gallery on a postcard. “Art direction can be a spontaneous collaboration between the model and photographer, with no design or emotion decided before the first click of the shutter.”
I always get some inspiration from each talk I attend. This idea was important, not only as the explanation for my own photography but also the process for my first dance. This struck me while filming Nika Antuanette for Heartbeat, two days after the Dylan lecture. I believe a true work of art can be planned as long as the emotion of the piece is spontaneous. Some of Russell’s photographs of Dylan are no more than photojournalism. That was his profession and the results are a success. The photographs that transcended purpose – those became works of art.
My afternoon shoot with Nika was planned in advance, just like Russell’s portrait session with Dylan in the 4th Street apartment. A particular time of day was set. The shoot was not arbitrary. After Nika arrived, we talked for a while, laughed mostly, while sharing a pot of my special green-mint-ginger tea. I’m sure Ted Russell didn’t walk into Dylan’s apartment and immediately begin shooting. There’s always some discussion to relax the model so they don’t appear “art directed.” Nika and I didn’t need that. This was our third shoot together and we are already close. But this time we weren’t beginning the shoot with pictures. Our first task was to record her heartbeat; the soundtrack for the dance.
Nika crawled into my bed, cuddling up next to Teel. They both seemed happy and content. Nika pulled down her dress so I could press my homemade stethoscope recording contraption against her chest, finding the spot to record the best sound. I felt half like a doctor and half like a voyeur. It’s not that I hadn’t seen Nika naked before but this was the first time I looked at her breasts without a camera in front of my face. It was exciting. Not the nudity. What struck me was the confidence and trust Nika had in the creation of my art. She was going to make this happen for me. I closed the windows and covered Nika’s chest with a thick blanket to muffle the noise coming in from the street. I put on the headphones and listened for her heartbeat. I heard the thump-thump, thump-thump, soft but clear. During one recording I held her leg with my hand. I could hear the change in her heartbeat at my touch, first faster but then calm and heavy, slow and steady. It was beautiful.
I felt we needed to be close before working on Heartbeat. The light coming in my bedroom window was beautiful. We spent half an hour shooting on my bed for the Intimate Portrait series. I had never seen Nika this relaxed in front of the camera. It had taken three shoots but Nika finally let out the muse I knew was inside her.
I dressed Nika in small black bottoms and a tank top. She stepped on to the small set. We shot still photographs to warm up. I gave little direction. The images are vertical. I had to let Nika know the width of her poses were limited to the shape of the camera’s frame. Otherwise the movement was determined by Nika. She already knows what I want, though each shoot has it’s own feel based on the emotions of that day. We shot the stills. I needed to discover where Nika’s head was at that moment. After ten minutes she entered an emotional space I hadn’t seen during our previous shoots. Nika was finally letting go. Her face and body were spontaneous and free. I switched to video.
Before we began I gave Nika a set of directions – feet must stay on the ground. Do not bend your body below this point. The edge of the background is the edge of my frame. You should at times move out of the frame – out of the camera’s view. It is important how you move back into the image area – art direction.
I began the recording of Nika’s heartbeat on the computer, loud with heavy bass to make sure she would have no trouble feeling the beat. I ran the camera and Nika began to move. The first time – four minutes straight. I was mesmerized. I didn’t say a word. We did two more takes and with each of Nika’s performances I became more spellbound. We talked to each other without speaking. We hugged in-between takes. I could feel her while she danced.
Yes, it was art directed. I had a plan. Nika already has an understanding of my choreographic language and uses that knowledge while rehearsing Heartbeat. But when the recording of her heartbeat began to play and the camera began to roll neither of us knew what would happen. I become that “fly on the wall,” capturing what I saw before me without interference. I think Bill T. Jones often works in that manner, allowing his dancers to improvise certain parts of the dance, knowing they understand his vision. I believe this is what Ted Russell meant when he said he didn’t give direction to Bob Dyan during his shoot. Planning and scripting are not the same thing.
It is a special thing, having an idea and watching it materialize before your eyes — not knowing what the final result will be – only knowing it will be wonderful. This is spontaneous creation.