Essay

Bill T. Jones on Secret Pastures

Interview by Kelly Elaine Navies

Bill T. Jones and Willi Smith came together on two seminal projects: Secret Pastures, a production of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and Made in New York, a short film by Les Levine.

In both cases, Smith provided garments that facilitated the action, basic cuts that moved without overpowering the meaning of the movement. Beyond their professional exchange, Jones and Smith experienced similar struggles as creative visionaries who were Black, gay, and victims of the AIDS epidemic. This excerpted conversation with Jones was conducted by Kelly Elaine Navies, museum specialist of oral history, as part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Oral History Initiative, which documents, collects, and preserves oral histories of iconic elders of African Americana and others who have shaped the culture in significant ways.

Kelly Elaine Navies:

 Who brought you and Willi Smith together?

Bill T. Jones:

I don’t remember the first meeting with Willi Smith. I just knew that we were being put together by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to work on Secret Pastures for the Next Wave Festival. You know, you were just assigned a costume designer in those days. I remember that Willi was the kind of Black man that I didn’t know. A sophisticated, accomplished, gay Black man. But he was playing that kind of celebrity game, as well. The BAM Producers Council was formed to pull together various successful, glamorous people to support BAM’s growing mission. And the Next Wave brought in performers like me and Arnie Zane, who were just entry level. I mean, had I ever performed at an opera house before or on a big stage? No. They made that possible. And they put Willi into it.

KEN:

And this is how Secret Pastures evolved?

BTJ:

Secret Pastures. We thought it was an incredibly sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek title referencing soap operas. You know, As the World Turns. It was going to be called a quasi-narrative, something outlandish like An Island in the PacificArtificial Man. I am this kind of hulking Frankenstein-type creature that Arnie, the professor, has made and activated. And he’s going to take me with a group of other people, who were our company. We were gonna explore this island and so on. Keith Haring, who was a friend, sort of said, “Yeah. Yeah.” He was down for anything. He would do the decor. He would make the posters and so on. And Willi knew Keith. Willi was in the scene, and see, Keith, at that point, was probably on the cover of five art magazines—Art in AmericaArt ForumARTnews. He was on all of those covers. Willi was sort of in his milieu. Fashion, you know. And why not the costumes? I think you’ve probably read that the opening night of Secret Pastures was an event. I remember Madonna was there with Andy Warhol. These were Keith’s friends. Then there’s Willi Smith, who was doing the costumes. So there was a fashion angle to it. And our company, who had just been rolling around on the stage, doing this kind of odd gymnastics with a formatless attention, we were suddenly being photographed and on the cover of Dance Magazine. It all happened so fast.

KEN:

What do you remember about the interactions with Willi Smith and Keith Haring and the collaboration overall?

BTJ:

In addition to designing the costumes, Willi brought in Marcel Fieve, who was Belgian and a very adventurous hairdresser. Nobody in the dance world was thinking about hair and makeup except Twyla Tharp, and Twyla was an outlier. She didn’t want anything to do with the downtown world, and the downtown world didn’t want anything more to do with her since she’d already done that, in her mind, ten or 15 years before. I remember that the opening night at BAM, Keith and Tim Carr [the programming consultant for Next Wave] were so scandalous, because the program they had printed up said “Hair and Makeup by Marcel Fieve.” So everybody who opened the program just fell on the floor and said, “Oh. Look at that. That says it all. ‘Hair and makeup.’ They’ve lost their soul. Our Bill and Arnie have really lost their soul.” ’Cause we’re doing hair and makeup. But, you know, souls are lost and found. And we were darlings, but we were also very ambitious.

KEN:

Were you attracted to Willi Smith’s style? Did you wear WilliWear?

BTJ:

I was attracted to the concept of WilliWear—that he was trying to look at the street and make fashion. That he would wanna work with us. That he was a successful man. Long stretch limousine. But he had a drug problem. He’d just cleaned up from it, I believe. And we would talk about things. I had never had a Black friend I could talk to about “What does it mean?” “Why are you in an interracial relationship?” And I remember him saying to me—I respect his memory, but I think he would appreciate me telling this story—“Look, man. You know, I had a Black lover. I did. But it turned into colored business. In the middle of the night, the police were coming. Somebody’s been called. We’re fighting and so on and so forth. You know?” And then he said, “And I wasn’t interested in being a White princess. ’Cause, you know, let’s face it. In a lot of those relationships, I was like the White guys. I was more educated, had more money. So you find some young dude, Black dude, and you become the White princess, and he becomes your stud.” And he said he wasn’t interested in that. Very strong language. Oh, yeah. It was wonderful.

 

KEN:

You connected about being two Black gay men within the arts scene?

BTJ:

We didn’t use that language. No. But that’s what it was. We knew that’s what it was. You know? We knew that we no longer had to be ashamed. But what was the drug addiction about? What was this running to the baths about? That was like trying to taste something? And then AIDS.

KEN:

Yes. Did you talk about AIDS?

BTJ:

I remember we had been seeing Willi. Secret Pastures had happened. We were still hanging out with Keith and all. And it was a Saturday morning, and Arnie was concerned, because he had begun to show some signs of being HIV-positive. And he was on a macrobiotic diet and so on and so forth. He and I were both tested in ’85. In ’86, he had this bump here, which actually was the beginning of—not leukemia, but lymphoma. And that was in May. I remember very well. May of ’86. And he died in March of ’88. Those two years was doctors, doctors, doctors. Sometimes, seven doctors a week. Different doctors, specialists. Different treatments and all. But Willi . . .

KEN:

He passed away in ’87. The year before.

BTJ:

Saturday morning, Arnie comes downstairs, and I come down. And Arnie is in front of the TV. And he sees a little tiny picture. “Designer Willi Smith has died.” And we knew the rest of us all were gonna die. We all would be dead.

KEN:

You knew it was AIDS?

BTJ:

Oh, we all knew.

KEN:

Because at first, they didn’t discuss that in the newspaper.

BTJ: 

Oh, no, they didn’t. They didn’t. They didn’t even say it about Arnie either. But we all knew what was going on. And I think we expected we’re all gonna die. You know? And it was a terrifying moment. But Willi was the first one. And so Willi died in ’87. Arnie died in March of ’88. Keith Haring died in 1990. Boom boom boom.

KEN:

Hearing that, what you went through and the losses that you experienced in those years, it’s not a surprise that you created Still/Here.

BTJ:

Still/Here was in ’94, now that I think about it. ’84, Secret Pastures. ’94, Still/Here. That’s ten years. Right? Yeah. Still/Here was ’94. Well, I was trying to roll with it. I still saw myself as a serious artist, a movement-based artist. The body has a poetry to it. This is the same sense of the body when I discovered dance ten years before in State University of New York in Binghamton. And now, how do you put that together with something big like the tragedy of death? And then, a guilty disease. Remember Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor?

BTJ:

In which she talks about tuberculosis in the 19th century being associated with courtesans and people who lived fast? And now, here we are, faced with another guilty disease, and people are dying every day. Willi dies. And Willi had been so fashionable and so fabulous, and he had stopped doing drugs. He was trying to clean his act up. And he still got caught. I understood something about Willi’s pain. Had there ever been a Black designer who achieved this sort of fame that Willi had? After he won the Coty Award [in 1983], I remember him complaining that people didn’t think he had craft. He said to them, “You all don’t think I know fabric.” ’Cause, you know, he used cotton fabrics, affordable fabrics, but they were fun fabrics. And he was making them for the public, and for people who were poor. He didn’t want to go the couture route.

KEN:

Right.

BTJ:

It was ready-to-wear. He had to be “I’m a serious designer. I know what you think design is. But I’m also a contemporary maker. And I’m really trying to make from the street, make from my Black experience.” And so on. So that’s what I appreciated about Willi. He was a man with a lot of sadness. He was often misunderstood.

KEN:

What do you hope people learn about Willi Smith’s work and about your collaboration together?

BTJ:

Willi was a generous man and had a lot of love. I think he was a bit cautious. That whole conversation about interracial relationships? I think he understood that there was a price we had to pay. We could not find our companions among the ranks of Black people. And that said something about who we were, but also something about what the world saw. You know, there used to be this discussion about Black men—straight men would get to a certain level, then their partners would be White women. So was that self-loathing, or was it about education and cultural references? He was trying to find his way through, and he was trying to succeed as a businessman. And Laurie Mallet was very, very important. A decent woman and very ambitious. What would I like to remember? Remember him as being generous. Remember him as being self-made, as we all had to be—making it up. Looking for authenticity. Having to, in some ways, play a role that maybe a young designer doesn’t have to play. Well, a young designer of color, ’cause there are so many more now. We recognized each other, but our disciplines were so different, and our understandings of the world were so different. But I think that he had a lot of faith in the future, and I think he truly believed in beauty. I think he participated in politics through how he lived and what he made. And I think he really was a human being, first and foremost. I would dare say even before being a Black person. He was a maker—a human maker. So his friends were a wide variety of people, and he was not afraid or intimidated by the serious avant-garde. He could come into it. I don’t know how he felt in the fashion world, but he moved with ease in the art world, which was to our advantage.

Grayscale photograph of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane posed dramatically in front of a background painted by Keith Haring

Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, promotional photography for Secret Pastures. Photographed by Tom Caravaglia, 1984


Grayscale photograph of Bill T. Jones, Willi Smith, and Arnie Zane jumping in the air

Bill T. Jones, Willi Smith, and Arnie Zane. Photographed by Jack Mitchell, 1984


Saturday morning, Arnie comes downstairs, and I come down. And Arnie is in front of the TV. And he sees a little tiny picture. “Designer Willi Smith has died.” And we knew the rest of us all were gonna die. We all would be dead.


Kelly Elaine Navies

Kelly Elaine Navies is the Museum Specialist in Oral History for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Bill T. Jones

Bill T. Jones, cofounder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, is a multitalented artist, choreographer, dancer, theater director, and writer who has received major honors, including a 1994 MacArthur “Genius” Award, Kennedy Center Honors in 2010, a 2013 National Medal of Arts, and the Human Rights Campaign’s 2016 Visibility Award.