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The Sunday Conversation: With Bill T. Jones

Bill T. Jones won his second Tony Award for choreographing “Fela!,” a musical about the late Nigerian Afrobeat singer, composer and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Jones, 59, also cowrote the book and directed the high-energy show about the government’s crackdown on his commune. “Fela!” comes to the Ahmanson Theatre on Tuesday and runs through Jan. 22, 2012.

Were you familiar with Fela’s music before this project?

Yes, I was. Fela was very important to a lot of us in the ‘70s, maybe not as important as Bob Marley. I studied African dancing at the university in 1970, ’71, and I was doing West African and African-Caribbean dance and modern dance taught by a wonderful dancer, Percival Borde, who was married to the great dancer and historian, Pearl Primus. It was all folklorico, so when I heard Fela’s music, it was a revelation that this was African music. We were listening and improvising to some of his albums, but it wasn’t until soon to be 10 years ago that [producer] Stephen Hendel came to me through a mutual friend and asked if I would consider doing the show. Then I began to go deeper into his music again.

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Why do you call him “a sacred monster”?

Because he is so flawed. There’s something megalomaniacal about him. But he makes art as not only something you consume and have a good time with, but art that has aspirations of speaking to power and art that speaks for people who can’t speak for themselves. There’s something very inspirational in his music, and I think that makes him sacred.

Music with political purpose was more common in those days. Do you agree?

I think at any one time there are always socially engaged artists. Some are more expressive than others. Some are caught in the cross hairs of history like Fela was, and he takes on a big responsibility and that’s why he was arrested so many times, and that’s why he was so often vilified and pursued by the authorities. You have to realize that very few rock musicians go so far as to teach themselves as Fela did another language. He had to learn to speak pidgin English. He had to learn to speak to the people in the street that he wanted to make music for. Therefore that gave him considerable credibility and to this day, in Nigeria, he’s kind of a national hero.

Why wasn’t his music better known here before this show?

I’m not a musicologist, but people involved in the world music movement in the ‘80s knew about Fela. Fela did not see himself as a pop musician. He saw himself as a serious composer and his first love was jazz. Already that’s going to be a problem for the masses of people in pop music. It was the kind of music that would appeal to people who know something about jazz music, who know something about modern music.

And I think there was something about his politics that was alien to Americans. They didn’t know much about the post-colonial struggle in Africa. I don’t believe that the majority of Americans were very interested. I think all those things make his music urgent, when you understand how he was already critiquing globalization, specifically what was the last gasp of colonialism in Africa and trying to speak first and foremost to people in Africa about it. The rest of us heard dance music only.

And one of the things we had to do in our show was to make the music accessible, we had to choose the right songs. And we had to translate the lyrics in some regards and sometimes write new lyrics that would express these very colloquial phrases he was using in the original.

One critic said “the pelvis is the star of West African dance.” Can you explain that?

That’s true to a point. The whole body is played like a percussion instrument in African dance. We were inspired by the way Fela’s women moved when you see them in videotapes. They’ve taken folkloric movements and done their gloss on them. There’s a particular kind of spiraling movement in the pelvis that the women dancers do on Fela’s stage ad nauseum. It’s very provocative and very elegant at the same time. It’s a sort of rippling, spiraling movement that goes down and goes up and goes down and goes up completely in sync with the music. On our stage, it’s impressed a lot of people when they see them moving in this way and it’s not designed to be hootchy-kootchy. Yes, they are fertility goddesses and yes, they’re go-go dancers. But by the same token in the same Afrika Shrine [where Kuti performed], they did a Yoruba ceremony on certain nights of the week, complete with sacrificing a chicken.

How do you translate vernacular dance into theater?

On our stage I introduced men. The only man onstage [originally] was Fela; for the most part all the other dancers were women. This is not a folkloric concert. [Those styles] are blended with my aesthetic of modern dance, so this is very much a work of the imagination, an interpretation of Fela’s concerts. The men bring a certain kind of brio and energy to it that you don’t see in the women onstage.

You have said that some of your work is “belligerently committed to not entertaining” and also “modern dancers are allergic to Broadway.” Why is that?

Are you asking me if modern dancers are allergic to Broadway? Yes, they are. Am I? No.

You realize I went to university with the idea of being an actor, and the only thing I knew about acting was you go to Broadway. Of course, at the university that interest was hijacked by modern dance. So I thought enough with saying other people’s words and enough with tap dancing. I would go in search of this thing that I was impressed by, having been exposed to Martha Graham, Jose Limon, not to mention Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham. All these people moved me a great deal because of the abstract beauty of the dance. For years I thought that was the sacred church that I was a member of.

With time, I became more interested in various forms of expressivity. And I began to look back with pleasure at my own past, the way people used to dance in front of a jukebox. And also in the modern dance world, there’s less than there was, but there are still divisions between white and black dance, and as a result white and black audiences. One of the things that has been rewarding to me about doing “Fela!” is how many black people come to the show. They don’t normally go to Broadway shows. They don’t go to modern dance very much. But here they felt there was a show that actually was saying something for them, that they’d enjoy. So Broadway was no longer supposed to be about dumbing down, but it gave me an opportunity to meet another audience — a vital audience that I’ve been lonely for for many, many years.

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