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A young dancer embodies Bill T. Jones's kin in A Letter to My Nephew
Lance T. Briggs is a muse for Bill T. Jones. The nephew of the MacArthur "Genius Grant"-winning choreographer, Briggs is a former dancer, songwriter, model, and male escort who struggled with drug addiction and ultimately contracted an illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In 2014, the duo embarked on an oral history project which resulted in Jones creating two works: A Letter to My Nephew and Analogy/Lance: Pretty AKA The Escape Artist, which is part of a larger trilogy. Now Jones is bringing the standalone A Letter to My Nephew -- which is titled to evoke James Baldwin's politically charged 1962 essay of the same name -- to BAM's Next Wave Festival, where it runs through October 7.
Although Pretty and Nephew are ensemble pieces with loose, fractured characterizations, 23-year-old Vinson Fraley, Jr. has appeared in both as the essence of the complicated Briggs. Fraley says dancing in these works has been an honor, a responsibility, and a catalyst for personal and artistic growth. "When I studied Bill T. Jones in dance history at NYU, his use of art as a social and political platform resonated with me," says the Atlanta native. "What continues to draw me to his work is that he uses it to create change. That challenges me to consider myself more deeply and my circumstances more clearly: my blackness, my identity, and my sexuality. I especially grapple with that as I work on pieces about Lance. All of it puts me in a place of questioning, forcing me to evaluate my role as an artist -- what I've given and what I want to give."
Fraley first met Jones while enrolled at NYU, when the choreographer set a piece on the students. After graduation, Fraley auditioned for Jones but was passed over, and went on to dance with Kyle Abraham/Abraham in Motion for a few seasons before finally snagging a spot with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company this past February. "I appreciated then, as I do now, that although Bill is intense and demanding, he can bring things out of you in such a unique way," says Fraley. "He inspires me to allow myself to let go fully -- to go there, wherever that might be. I come from the competition dance world, which is all about impressing. Bill might say, 'Why do we need to do that? Lower the leg.' He makes me consider, what does it mean to be a mover? What challenges can I offer myself and the viewers?"
Nephew, which premiered in 2015, was originally created with a different dancer in Fraley's role. So he spent a lot of time with the company's associate artistic director, Janet Wong, learning the nuances of the movement. "It was a crash course," says Fraley. "Janet's like a mother and she has the fiercest eye -- she catches everything. She understands every in and out technically, and also dramaturgically, so she could share information about the context of Bill and Lance's relationship."
While Nephew was inspired by Briggs's specific experiences, Fraley notes that, as an African-American man, he relates to a lot of it. "There's something special about how Bill uses the relationship he has to his nephew as an ode to any young black young man," he says. "It's a personal piece but it also speaks to the state of America, the fragility of being gay, being black, and being a part of the LGBTQ community. There's also something to Lance as a person that struck me: He doesn't want to be hurt in a world not made for him, but he moves as if he has all the time in the world. There is beauty in him, and other young men should know they have the right to that sense of agency and confidence. The piece says: You have a purpose."
Once Fraley had the choreography down, he started working with Jones one-on-one. The dancer was amazed by Jones's "impulses and how quickly he processes so many different things in one moment," he remembers. "He sees things so vividly and in such cinematic form, and then he wants you to produce right away." Though it was a demanding process, Fraley says it helped expand his boundaries. "Allowing myself to just do, while also knowing what I'm doing -- I'm working on it," says Fraley. "How can I be actively present while producing immediately? Since Letter is more bare-bones -- I sing a song Lance wrote, but there are less spoken words and visuals than in Pretty -- I have really been working on how these two ideas connect. Living in that energy of Lance's character is helping me understand him -- and also myself as an artist."
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Lauren Kay regularly contributes to TDF Stages..
Top image: Vinson Fraley, Jr., photo by Jessica Scott.