Date November 9, 2022
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Iconic director, choreographer Bill T. Jones invites students, scholars and local community members onstage

Two dozen Brown community members and Providence-area residents recently had the rare chance to perform in “What Problem?,” directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, at the VETS Auditorium.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Jada Wooten, a Brown University junior, aspires to use dance to unite people from disparate backgrounds and to address pressing social issues, such as inequality and climate change.

So it’s no surprise that Wooten jumped at the chance to perform on stage with Bill T. Jones, a revered choreographer known for confronting thorny issues such as racism and the AIDS epidemic in his work — and who has long invited community members across the United States to join him on stage.

Following an application process, Wooten and two dozen other Providence-area residents took part in a performance of Jones’ project  “What Problem?” on Friday, Nov. 4, at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The University’s Brown Arts Institute joined forces with longtime partner FirstWorks, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing engaging new art to Rhode Island, to invite Jones and his company to Providence for a week packed with public conversations on the connections between dance, community, the COVID-19 pandemic and the midterm elections; workshops with local high school students; a master class with Brown students; and, yes, a performance.

“My fond memories of watching Bill T. Jones’ choreography were in the back of my mind as I applied for the opportunity to dance alongside him,” Wooten said. “In the front of my mind were my students in Beginning Modern Dance, where I’m a teaching assistant. A focus of the course is getting students to watch and critique performances, and one of them is ‘What Problem?’ I figured I could enhance my students’ experience with the performance if I had a role in it and could share my performance stories with them.”

Jones’ “What Problem?” evokes the tension between belonging to a community and feeling isolated in divisive political times. The piece features singing, evocative movement and readings from “Moby Dick,” the Constitution and the “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The piece’s ruminations on isolation took on new meaning when, one month before its intended premiere, COVID-19 spread across the U.S., bringing in-person gatherings and performances to a halt. “What Problem?” is a tourable, smaller scale adaptation of the epic work “Deep Blue Sea,” commissioned by New York’s Park Avenue Armory and premiered there in 2021 with 89 local performers, in addition to Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company members.

Avery Willis Hoffman, artistic director of the BAI and former program director of Park Avenue Armory, said she was inspired to collaborate with FirstWorks on bringing “What Problem?” to Providence in part because of its inclusivity. In every city where they perform the piece, Jones and his 9-member company invite a cast of local performers to join them onstage. The community members — who are both professional and amateur artists — take part in the movement and read personal statements that begin with “I know…” 

Among the 26 paid Providence participants were dancers, spoken-word artists, actors, musicians and activists. Nine of them were students, faculty and staff from Brown — the rest from local communities beyond campus.

“Artistic spaces are spaces where communities can make genuine connections, but rarely are communities welcomed into the performance itself,” Hoffman said. “‘What Problem?’ eases the barriers between various backgrounds and professions, inviting all to move and express together.”

The piece is reflective, Hoffman said, of the BAI’s vision to bridge barriers between the University and communities beyond College Hill, forging long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with artists both international and local. Having known Jones from her time at the Armory, Hoffman believed he would be an ideal long-term collaborator for a university campus. She hopes Jones will visit Brown over the next few years, engaging more deeply with students, researchers, creators and arts makers at Brown and beyond.

“Over the course of the week he was in Providence, Bill was very open to feedback from the community performers and from the audience members,” Hoffman observed. “Some folks challenged him on sections of the performance and pushed back on his ideas; that feedback may well inform his next choreography, or even the next performance of this piece. Art evolves, and if you’re able, as a student or scholar, to bear witness to that evolution through regular connections with artists, unique and powerful results might be possible.”

Dancing to learn

Hoffman said that working with Jones — an innovative, conversation-starting artist who has won virtually every prestigious choreography award there is — isn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Rhode Islanders — it’s also a chance for students, scholars and employees at the University to engage in hands-on arts learning.

Wooten, a lifelong dancer, certainly hopes to learn something from the experience. Inspired by figures like Jones, she is currently engaged in a research project on the effectiveness of social justice-focused dance education at community centers. She hopes to take away lessons she can apply in a career that blends movement and social justice, like that of Jones.

“I am double-concentrating in dance and education to explore how arts education can be a form of therapy and a tool for addressing educational inequalities. My passion for using dance to build community influenced my decision” to apply to take part in the performance, Wooten said.

Bill T. Jones' vast reach


In advance of the Nov. 4 performance, Hoffman, FirstWorks Founder Kathleen Pletcher and others discussed Bill T. Jones’ influential career.

Sophia Pray, who manages community-engaged learning programs at Brown’s Swearer Center, applied for a role in “What Problem?” after seeing the opportunity advertised on campus. For Pray, a recent transplant from Colorado, the experience is partly personal enrichment: Over the course of four rehearsals in a week, she looked forward to forming friendships with other Providence-area residents who share her passions for dance and performance. But Pray also considered it a form of professional development, she said.

"This project offers a great example of the kind of community-engaged teaching and learning that we hope to support at the Swearer Center and at Brown more broadly,” Pray said. “The partnership between the BAI, FirstWorks, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and community members honors the expertise that each of these groups holds while also building on a common goal of fostering connections and expression through the arts.” Pray said. “It's exciting to be able to play a part as an individual participant in this larger collaboration, and I look forward to seeing how these partnerships deepen over time."

For Siraj Sindhu, a Ph.D. student at Brown in political science, it’s not a professional opportunity but a chance to decompress in the midst of a rigorous semester. Sindhu has never danced professionally, but he remembers studying Jones’ choreography in a dance and theater class as an undergraduate — and he has experience performing at open-mic nights and in a “terrible” punk band.

“As a Ph.D. student, I always need more creative outlets — so it was timely to have this opportunity pop up,” he said. “I love the athleticism and grace of Bill T. Jones’ choreography, so I was excited to work with the Jones/Arnie Zane Company specifically.”

The legendary choreographer has said that when students take part in performances of “What Problem?” it helps “keep me on my game.” But for Kira Kelly Clarke, it’s the other way around. The Brown senior took a brief hiatus from dance at the University amid the pandemic as classes transitioned to Zoom, instead opting to self-train at home. But leading up to Nov. 4, she was dancing near daily and reading passages from “Moby Dick” in preparation. She said she hoped to come away from the experience thinking deeply about how she can contribute to positive societal change, like Jones, after she graduates.

“I think it's sometimes hard to see dance as a dominant force in current culture, maybe because of its ephemerality or perceived lack of accessibility,” Clarke said. “But Bill T. Jones has a record of translating the complex ideas, legacies and traditions of America through choreography and successfully reaching wider audiences. His works, from my standpoint, weave a new tapestry of what America looks like or could look like. That is obviously beautiful and necessary.”