NBC News

Nightly News   |  February 02, 2010

Stepping out with Bill T. Jones

theGrio.com's 100: The acclaimed dancer and choreographer of the hit Broadway musical "Fela!" has informed audiences on race, politics and sexuality through modern dance for more than thirty years. NBC's Ann Curry reports.

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BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Finally tonight, we're marking Black History Month here all this week by profiling those who are making history right now, with the help of our partner Web site thegrio.com and its list of 100 Influential People . Tonight, our own Ann Curry introduces us to a man who already invented himself once and has been in the reinvention business ever since. Mr. BILL T. JONES : One, two, three, four, five...

ANN CURRY reporting: As a dancer...

Mr. JONES: Change it, change it.

CURRY: ... Bill T. Jones has never been one to sit still. A celebrated choreographer for the last 20 years in the modern dance world, by now he could easily have taken an artful bow.

Mr. JONES: OK, again. From the top, please.

CURRY: But instead he has left to a new stage...

Mr. JONES: Reinventing the wheel again and again, such is my lot. Four o'clock, 5:00...

CURRY: ...on Broadway in a role few have attained.

Mr. JONES: ...8:00, 9:00. Good.

CURRY: That of director and choreographer.

Mr. JONES: Three and nine.

CURRY: His show " Fela !" is an African musical , but a far cry from " The Lion King ," mixing the true story of a rebellious political musician named Fela with Jones ' own avant garde dance line...

CURRY: ...he has somehow spun into the mainstream.

CURRY: I was in this audience, a mostly Caucasian audience, that was doing the clock.

Mr. JONES: That clock, how do I trick people into understanding what it is to do something outlandish and free?

CURRY: That freedom is among many feelings Jones layers into his dances from his life, drawing in part from his family. He was one of 12 children in upstate New York .

Mr. JONES: I don't think I can overstress what it was like to grow up in an African-American family in a -- in a German and Italian community in the late '50s, early '60s. There were good people, but there was no blending. So there was always this question about, `Who am I?'

CURRY: Creating a safe place to look inward, he founded his dance company in the '80s with his late partner Arnie Zane , bringing together a diverse set of dancers, even now with a new piece on Lincoln . Always pushing boundaries to be an original, to be real. Now making Broadway stretch.

Mr. JONES: Look at this space. Look at these lights. I want you to believe that we're in Lagos in Nigeria in 1978 . Wow! How did that happen?

CURRY: One of the mottos or messages of this show is originality, not artificiality. You give the dancers a chance to let them be original in their own work .

Mr. JONES: Yes. Ah, my God, if Broadway could be that way. That we're actually saying to the world, take a solo out there. Go for it. What you got?

CURRY: Teaching a new dance for a new audience eager to see more. Ann Curry , NBC News , New York .