Collision: Bill T. Jones and Daniel Bernard Roumain

Bill T. Jones in Blind Date
Bill T. Jones in Blind Date
Photo by Paul B. Goode
Premiere performance at Montclair State University, New Jersey, September 2005

DBR: The third person in the room is the audience. I think that’s very important. I can’t imagine Bill and I doing our work without that opinion having a consequence.

BTJ: I can. You see, this is what I don’t understand. Modernism was built on this notion that the masses would not understand you, and that you had to keep doing it.

DBR: But you’re not doing that.

BTJ: But we have to have the courage to do that. His generation is very concerned with how a thing propagates itself in the media. It’s almost as important as aesthetic value. What we as creators think is important or relevant should come before what’s going to appeal to an audience. I don’t want to ever lose that. I want to hit a home run as well, but let’s not assume that that is the only thing worth doing.

DBR: No, that’s not the implication I was trying to make. I’m talking about the audience saying to you, however much you want to push them or to not have them matter. It seems to me whether it is a Q & A after the show or a conversation that you have at dinner with Laurie Anderson or anybody else who is around you. What they think, not whether they agree or even applaud, but what they think seems to matter to you. It certainly matters to me.

BTJ: I, for whatever reason, need affirmation. And I need affirmation to sense that the ideas are good ideas, that somebody felt something that’s true. I’m not proud of being dependent on that need. I would like to be able to go into uncharted territory and nobody is there, but I have to have a few people. I need you there, I need Janet there, I need Bjorn there. Maybe I need one thinker in the field there who says, “You know, I see where you’re going with this.” Now, the business of art is another thing. Stay tuned. I have not found out yet how to balance that high ideal of creative freedom with the business of art. This has always been a problem for artists, I think.

DBR: I don’t only want teenagers and twenty-somethings coming to my concerts. I don’t think Bill would want that either. I grew up a Catholic. I grew up with many communal experiences. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for the 17-year-old sitting next to the 70-year-old and having a conversation about what we’re trying to do. That’s my own selfish take on audiences. I think the problem is that the notion of the performing arts is actually gone. I don’t think people necessarily go to see a performing arts group. They go to see an artist. People go to see Bill T. Jones. Hopefully people are going to see Daniel Bernard Roumain. But I don’t know if they’re necessarily going to see great movement. They will see great movement, but there’s a big difference. I don’t want to say the performing arts are dead, but the way the performing arts makes its way into the world is very different now, and that’s where I am. Here’s my agenda: I’m all about Regain the Heart Condemned, Bill T. Jones, Nurit Pacht, Akim Funk Buddha, Wynne Bennett, Neel Murgai, DJ Scientific, DJ Spooky, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Let me put these people together because, to me, once you get [the audience] there, then we can baptize them. Then you can convert them. But if you don’t get them there, what do you have?

BTJ: Having said that, Daniel, my perspective is somewhat different. I come from the wild and wooly late ’60s/early ’70s notion that we’re just forming this in funky spaces for our friends. That, as a matter of fact, too much success means that already your work couldn’t have validity. That was the classic notion of what the avant-garde outsider artist was. It had to be a small group. As a matter of fact, Charlie Reinhart of the American Dance Festival told me that during the ’40s and ’50s when Martha Graham and that group were making their important classic works—which at least a generation of us were taught were the cornerstones of that canon—they were oftentimes performed in a room which, maybe, at the most, had 100 or 200 people. And whenever they saw a new person in the front row, everyone would be talking about “Who is that?” because everybody knew each other. That was the idea we had about what the true art was.

Now we fast forward. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane come in and are beginning to think like you. Even then we had this idea that in order for you to be really serious, you had to divide people and people had to fight about what you did. And if you were performing for big audiences, you probably were “selling out.” We were hungry, however, because of our working class background, or what have you. Now, I’m at a point where I have to wrestle with what I call the business of art. Once again, I think your generation does not make that distinction. The business of art says that you must replenish regularly that base of people who will be what we call “butts-in-seats.” That’s what it comes down to.

Now, your way of getting at that and my way of getting at that are not at all conflicting, but maybe our reasoning might be. The idea is, how can I make my product that is truest to me, but find a way of promoting it so that it actually speaks to the broadest group of people? You think that by having that diversity of means on stage, you will in fact achieve that goal. Others might say, do the best work you can and do it long enough, and they will come to you. I’m not quite so sure anymore. Quite frankly, I’m rather pessimistic about it.

[There's] quite a wonderful artist; he is a generation before me. Just recently I got up the nerve to try to become friends with him; I always thought he hated me. He, actually, is just a very insecure guy. And he told me, “I used to think if I could prove to the world that I could do something with anything, they would beat a path to my door and throw money at me.” Not true. As a matter of fact, he is struggling now with obscurity. Very good artist, a genius of his generation, maybe [now] making some of his best works. That’s the game. What I think we have to own up to is, if we want popular acceptance, if we want to fill those seats, we’ve got to begin to do market research. We’ve got to think about everybody. Talk about audiences, now the whole game is: how do you get that demographic from age 18 to 39? Who are the young dudes who buy tickets to go see action movies two or three times? How do you get that group to even consider coming into your theater? They heard it’s performing arts; it’s got to to be uninteresting. And you’ve got to do all this with the most integrity. How do you do that? That’s what I’m about right now; how do you continue practicing the alchemy? As you know, the alchemists were these guys who felt if you took this base metal and held it up, cosmic rays would come along and presto, you would make gold. I think most artists feel that way even now, in the laboratory. But, how do you make that process irresistible to the broadest number of people? Our conflict sometimes is about the function of what that is.

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