Out choreographer Bill T. Jones continues his foray into the legitimate stage with ‘Fela!,’ the African dance musical
Although he’s best known as a choreographer, Bill T. Jones would probably resist applying any label to what he does that inhibits his creative expression.
As the surviving founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, he revolutionized dance — notably with Still/Here, which explored the impact of AIDS on the body — and won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant along the way.
But a few years ago, he moved from the esoteric world of dance to the pop sensibilities of Broadway, choreographing Spring Awakening (and winning a Tony).
Apparently, the theater bug’s bite is strong, because he returned with Fela!, a dance-heavy musical he choreographed, directed, co-wrote and developed.
Nobody puts Billy in a corner.
“I don’t just stage dances,” Jones insists. “My dances often have text in them. I work from the ground up. But Broadway is its own animal — the demands make it that.”
Fela!, which opened at the Winspear this week, wasn’t an obvious sell to American audiences.
Based on the life of African musician and nationalist activist Fela Kuti — who helped define the Afrobeat sound in the 1960s and ‘70s before succumbing to AIDS in 1997 — Fela! is an exhausting voyage through politics, music and movement, much of which would be unfamiliar to Americans. But Jones’ interest in Fela started decades ago.
“I had been a member of a dance collective in Binghamton, N.Y., in the 1970s, and one of our teachers went to a library looking for some African music,” Jones recalls. “The teacher was drawn to this colorful album and got it. We played it a great deal and began to follow his story, including his incarceration at that time. I imagined it like a rock star [in the U.S.] being thrown in jail.”
Flashforward a few decades, and an American theater producer was looking for someone to tell Fela’s story. “Our shared lawyer had seen my work at the Guthrie Theater [in Minneapolis] and told him about it,” Jones says. They met, “and he said, ‘I think you are the guy.’”
Casting was a huge hurdle. The actor playing Fela commands the stage for more than two hours, sweating like a racehorse. It would require back-up casting to keep the show fresh every night.
And there weren’t many actors who could pull it off anyway. (He eventually enlisted Sahr Ngaujah, who won a Tony nom for his performance.) Then came the process of culling through Fela’s music and selecting not just pieces that would aid in the story, but rewriting the songs for a wider audience.
“We had to find a way to change and translate [Fela’s] lyrics,” Jones says. “His music was often sung in pidgin English or other [African dialects]. But that whole generation of Afrobeat musicians consider them sacred,” and didn’t want to mess with them. They eventually found a balance that worked.
Initially, Jones saw the production as something like his other dance work. “We thought Fela! should be the hip, downtown thing — showing in Brooklyn, or as a weekend show, building a rep” among the New York tastemakers. But commercial theater beckoned.
“We were off-Broadway at 37 Arts and said, ‘Let’s put it up on its feet.’ [As soon as it opened,] people were lining up down the block. I went on vacation and didn’t know it had been as successful as it was.”
The move to B’way was natural, but required even more changes — including lopping at least 20 minutes from its runtime. “We were freaked out by it but it was exciting,” Jones says. “Songs that we fell in love with, that talked about that period, eventually had to go to shape a commercial theater run even though they were very close to our heart.”
Fela! closed on Broadway in 2011, but the national tour continues to represent Jones’ vision. He does not travel with the show, however: He remains busy with his dance company, serving as executive director of another arts group and even continues his B’way career. Now at age 61, you might expect Jones to be looking toward retirement. He scoffs.
“You’re thinking of normal people,” he says. “Artists don’t think that way.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 10, 2013.