Bill Moyers discusses the events of Sept. 11 with choreographer Bill T. Jones and Broadway producer Julie Taymor.
Watch a Clip
BILL MOYERS: Hello, I’m Bill Moyers. We look to creative artists who express with their work our inexpressible emotions, sometimes joy and gladness, sometimes sadness or grief. What can artists say to us about the tragedy of Sept. 11? Tonight I’m in conversation with two of America’s most eloquent and passionate artists: the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones; and Julie Taymor, the director and designer of the spectacular musical “The Lion King.” Ms. Taymor recently directed a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a bloody and macabre portrait of violence and vengeance. Here’s a clip about Julie Taymor from PBS.
MEL GUSSOW: Julie Taymor is and always was one of the most innovative artists in the American theater. It was very obvious to those of us who saw the early work that this was someone who really was experimenting time after time after time, always moving literally to the edge.
SPEAKER 2: People think of her, you know, as a visualist, as a designer. The fact is she’s fundamentally a storyteller. She’s using those tools, whether it’s masks or puppets or costumes. She’s doing that to tell a story.
BILL MOYERS: We share in common a lifelong interest in religion and mythology, but I wish we shared in common your incredible imagination. Could you in that imagination have ever foreseen what happened here eight days ago?
JULIE TAYMOR: No.
BILL MOYERS: No.
JULIE TAYMOR: Except that I think we have seen it in images in the movies. Of course not as… Probably as well done or as spectacular, but we have seen that kind of apocalyptic imagery before. It’s just the fact that it is truly happening that it’s been conceived and it’s not the image but the actual result of the image that is so horrifying.
BILL MOYERS: Your adaptation of Titus is full of violence, rage, madness, cannibalism, rape. I mean, everyone is hell bent on inflicting horror on someone else. There’s that moment in the film when the character played by Jessica Lange says, “I’ll find a day to massacre them all.” I mean, this was written a long time ago.
JULIE TAYMOR: Right. But what is so powerful and the reason I did that film adaptation of this play is that these are all normal people who are engaged in acts of war, from one tribe or one nation against each other, and what they’ve inflicted upon each other is what makes the vengeance cycle begin. She says that because she has her son, her first-born son, murdered in front of her as a religious sacrifice in Titus’s world, in the Roman general’s world. She says a line that’s even more amazing. When she begs for the life of her son and she says, “Your sons died in the streets for their cause like my son. Please, show mercy. Show compassion.” And he says, “I cannot because my religion says that I cannot.” And she goes, “Cruel, irreligious piety.” Think of those words at that time that Shakespeare put together that concept.
BILL MOYERS: Have they come to mind recently?
JULIE TAYMOR: Absolutely. Because in the name of religion, even the word “crusade” makes me shiver. The idea that that word has come up, that this is a crusade. What is the crusades? What were the crusades? What horrific slaughter was done in the name of religion, whether it was the Inquisition or any kind of honor killings? The thing about Titus is it’s a complete investigation of every single kind of violent act. You see the attempt at arriving at justice. That line between justice and revenge is invisible sometimes.
BILL MOYERS: We don’t really have any evidence yet of the explicit religious beliefs of the hijackers, and yet everyone has been assuming that it was Islamic fundamentalists, that mentality, that ideology. That passion. Do you assume that?
JULIE TAYMOR: I only know what I’m being told. I don’t assume it. I listen but I do know that the power of religion is a great power. What is so sad to me is I feel that religious leaders must talk about the perversion, the perverse use of religion because there’s nothing more beautiful than the pure Islam, than the 50 teachings which do not push people in that direction at all. It’s the misuse of religion. Why as an artist I am very aware that religion and art go hand in hand. It’s a very close… Art came out, theater, dance came out of religion. It came out of devotion. Therefore, it is a form that it can inspire people, can make them transcend the banality of everyday.
BILL MOYERS: There is a mind in the world tonight… You said you couldn’t imagine what happened here, but there is a mind in the world tonight who not only imagined it but has seen it fulfilled, not in literature but in life. Is there any… What do you think possesses a… That kind of imagination?
JULIE TAYMOR: I think it’s what we have to ask. I think that is the question. Also in my profession, what I try and do is almost cubist in the sense that you want to tell a story from a different perspective. What I would encourage right now is that we have to ask that question is, why are we the devil? We can’t say that is evil when we are also being called evil. You have to investigate it and say, why has this been… Why does America represent this incredible devil to an enormous amount of people, that so much so that they could be inspired to die in their attempt to rid themselves of this devil?
BILL MOYERS: I don’t think most Americans… Do you think most Americans tonight think of themselves as the devil?
JULIE TAYMOR: Of course not. I don’t think that the terrorists think of themselves as the Devil. They see this as a great cause. That’s why we have to go and search very deeply on how we are also conceived of in this image. That is something we must ask.
BILL MOYERS: How they see it.
JULIE TAYMOR: Yes, that’s right.
BILL MOYERS: What is there about us that in their imagination makes us the Satan, enough that they want to kill us.
JULIE TAYMOR: We have this mentality that we are so great. I am a patriot. I believe in the beauty and the strength and the freedom. As I came up here tonight my cab driver was a holocaust victim. We talked for a long time in the cab ride about what is going on now. He kept talking about education. It was amazing. All he could say, he had been in the camps and for him America gave him a new life. I mean, the great things, he was educated here. It was beautiful to listen to it, to listen to him talk about the misuse of ignorance, the way… I believe that about Americans as well. We must know more. We must know more about the people who perpetrated the act, the connection, if there is one, to the religion, the differences between what the religious tenets are, what are the truths behind that religion and how it can be twisted. Just like I think we can twist our patriotism in a very sick way. How can you… Now, I can’t really talk about the bomb, but we have heard over and over again that it saved many lives a atomic bomb.
BILL MOYERS: You mean over Nagasaki.
JULIE TAYMOR: What do you say about the innocent victims? What do you say about all the people who had nothing to do for that, that it was for a greater cause? I’m sure those kinds of words are used by our enemy. I think that… And this is also why Titus so intrigued me. I think the word “enemy” is dangerous. I get so sad in the time of incredible global communication that we have such a strong feeling that we must separate ourselves and our identity when the greatness of America… The greatness of New York we see is this incredible blend of culture and…
BILL MOYERS: They don’t see it that way. Whoever tried to kill us last week and in fact just before we came here they revised the figure of estimated missing to almost 7,000 people. This happened within a mile of where your great hit “Lion King” is running. If I took my four grandchildren, Henry, Thomas, Nancy and Jassy to “The Lion King” tonight and we came out in the wake of this horror, would we be experiencing cognitive dissonance between “Lion King” and this reality?
JULIE TAYMOR: I think what you would get from “Lion King” you would relate to this because you would be seeing the circle of life, the connection, the connection between tribes of people, between families, sacrifice. I mean, a big part of what we’re learning here is sacrifice. I think what has so moved people and will continue to move people is the idea that we can go beyond the physical everyday that there are Americans who are responding in a… What would you call it? In a sacrificial way, self-sacrificial way for the other. It’s very important that we constantly look at the other; and the “Lion King” is a tale that helps one through a difficult passage, which is the death of the father. I can relate very quickly this story that was told to me of a family whose child… One of their children had died. They had tickets in advance, as you know, to “The Lion King.” They brought their other child who was a younger son to “The Lion King.” When he saw the scene where the father tells the son, the son says, “Daddy, are you going to be here forever?” And he answers and says, “Look at the stars. The great kings of the past look down on us from those stars.” He relates that I will be there always with you. Even if I’m not on a physical plane, if you remember that I will be here with you. The little boy turned to his parents and said, “Sarah is with us, isn’t she?” If I feel as an artist that I’ve helped one family getting through that passage of time, that’s what my role is. The artists originally were the priests, the shamans, they were the ones who took people through the drought, through the circumcisions, through the marriages, through these great passages of time, whether it’s personal, sickness or global sickness.
BILL MOYERS: I appreciate that. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. But the other side is I’ve talked to Islamic fundamentalists who see mega companies like Disney as the embodiment of what is subverting their own culture. Has that occurred to you?
JULIE TAYMOR: Of course it has. I’ve been very concerned with the power of Western media to transform other cultures. That’s something that we must be aware of, that we just blindly go. Our commodities are there. I lived in Indonesia for four years. Believe me, I saw the television, the power of the television, just wipe out indigenous dance forms, indigenous culture. We should be sensitive. We should have a United Nations on the entertainment industry. We should have especially young people…
BILL MOYERS: That’s surprising coming from an artist.
JULIE TAYMOR: No. No because the arts can be subversive. They’ve always been subversive.
BILL MOYERS: You can’t censor them.
JULIE TAYMOR: No, I would advocate looking at all of the arts that exist and making sure that they are kept supported and alive and appreciated and that they’re not just allowed to die. There has to be an observance. When Westerners go to Asia, for instance, as I did, we see things because we come from the outside that we don’t take for granted because we’ve never seen it. A lot of artists in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were very inspired by Japanese theater, various forms, African forms. But in the countries themselves where it feels like it’s tradition, the young people want to move on. They can’t appreciate necessarily what they have.
BILL MOYERS: how do we move on now in this last moment? How does this country move on? The president will be speaking soon.
JULIE TAYMOR: I think you have to hope for the intelligence and the compassion and look for the leaders that are of this other to help inspire, inspire another way. But we must have humility. We must look at why we have become the enemy for so many people. Not worthy of being slaughtered, of course, but it’s very, very important to have that bigness about our… And open ourselves to that as well.
BILL MOYERS: Titus ends not with an American happy ending. We don’t know whether the killing is going to continue or whether there’s hope for the future.
JULIE TAYMOR: No, I changed Titus. Many people think I was sentimental about this. At the end everybody dies practically. There is the child of the enemy, Aaron the Moor, has a baby. Normally I think in any normal culture, that baby would have been confined or killed. Because, of course, as these children, if their parents are slaughtered they’re going to grow up and avenge their parents and their culture. But I had a different ending. This is the ending that I would hope for, which is I took my 12-year-old boy because the whole sequence is told through the eyes of Titus’ grandson, the whole movie I set through these eyes. At the end of the film on his own after he’s seen all the slaughter, after he’s been complicit. He was also part of the vengeance act, he took this child, this black child, out of a cage — because I had it in a cage. They wouldn’t kill the child but keep it in a cage, his parents, the young boy’s father. But he himself on his own will took the child out and held his enemy and moved out of the coliseum. And the book ends with this coliseum, the theater of vengeance and cruelty. We didn’t talk about the entertainment value of violence as well. And he exited. Now he’s going to a bleak landscape. There’s water. There’s the beginning of a sunrise, but he’s taking that enemy out of the coliseum. When we opened on Christmas Day 1999, that’s what I hoped for. I hoped that when we went to the next millennium that there would be that, that the children… And I believe there has to be the children… The children have to start to question because they’re inculcated.
BILL MOYERS: We shall see.
JULIE TAYMOR: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Julie Taymor.
JULIE TAYMOR: You’re welcome.
BILL MOYERS: I’ve known my next guest for several years now. He’s the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. He was the subject of my documentary a few years ago based on his production Still/Here. It’s about his work in expressing through dance the pain and healing that are beyond the scope of words alone. Here’s a brief clip.
BILL T. JONES: Something happened around the time that he first encountered white people. Something happened that reminded him of this safeness of that first years, but he was now encouraged to speak. He now had something to say so there was this circle and then there’s a confusion, confusion as to if he is the son of Estelle and Gus or if he is somehow the Bill, the one who goes to school with white kids every day but comes home and speaks black English, comes home to a poverty family and the confusion looks like a circle which sounds like the one that we had earlier.
BILL MOYERS: That was a beautiful moment in our film, and people still come up to me and say, does he really believe it’s possible to find joy in working with the wounded and among the dying? And does he still believe that this week?
BILL T. JONES: That’s a very good question. You know, I thought when I was making Still/Here I wanted to affirm that there is that which is profound and beautiful in all that is life and in particularly in those moments when it’s dark. So Still/Here was trying to tell people that there is always reason to sing and dance.
BILL MOYERS: Even in the face of 6,000-7,000 dying, dead people?
BILL T. JONES: Well, you know, that moment stunned everybody. It’s true. But now, you realize I come from an African-American tradition. That’s been one of the things I’ve been exploring now for the last 15 years or so. How is it that slaves were able to sing about their experience? How is it that at the turned singing and prayer and public confession into an art form? So that the community could have a platform on which to see itself and to transcend? I’ll still say it: we need to… We need the arts now. We need them.
BILL MOYERS: When I first met you, you were wrestling with the grief over the death of your soul mate and companion. You were working with people who were facing terminal illness or were deeply wounded. What would you bring from those experiences of survival to the moment, to this moment?
BILL T. JONES: I am always looking for the ecstatic, believe it or not. I know ecstatic maybe isn’t so useful. But it is a way of seeing past the visible world to understand what this world is truly made of. What would I say to people who have lost the ones they love? When I lost Arnie Zane I taught about grief a great deal and I said that the one could do is identify those qualities in the person that you loved and try to aspire to them. Not to idealize that person but to understand truly what that person was and to try to keep that thing alive. And to be more brave. And more generous. Now that’s tough. It’s something that Julie Taymor was just saying about how do you embrace your enemy? I always feel like I’m this… You know, I have been this apostate Christian for so many years but there’s something about, I believe, the challenge of humanity, the challenge of spiritual growth is how do you keep coming back and saying yes, not be a fool, not let someone abuse you but how do you say yes to experience, yes? Could I go now and dance at that site? I could. I could dance. I could dance with respect. I could dance with grief. Fierceness. I would dance and hopefully invite grieving people and we’d all dance together.
BILL MOYERS: You told me when we were together in the film, making the film, that dancing was liberating, and that you dealt with your grief a great deal through movement. What would you say to the rest of us who are not artists? Would you advise folks right now when they’re grieving and they’re suffering to get up, put on some music and begin to move?
BILL T. JONES: Be together. And, yes, sing. Yes, dance. I know this might seem ridiculous to people. But it is in a way…
BILL MOYERS: Nothing would seem ridiculous after the last eight days.
BILL T. JONES: That’s true. For me, a favorite image of god is Shiva, the god of the dance, dancing on the dwarf of ignorance. Now that is a profoundly beautiful metaphor. Dancing is also the play of ideas. Dancing is energy, but I think that physical idea of dancing… Because the body is a thing that can be alienated from the mind, and the heart. When we pull them together and make very simple gestures as a group, I believe that there is something that is unlocked. The ancient Greeks knew it. People have known it in traditional societies. There is something that gives us strength there.
BILL MOYERS: My pastor, James Forbes at Riverside Church… I think you’ve been at Riverside Church before, marvelous man. He spoke last Sunday about how we need to work through healing through the wisdom of the body. Do you believe there’s wisdom in the body?
BILL T. JONES: I do believe there’s wisdom in the body.
BILL MOYERS: What is it? How do we find it?
BILL T. JONES: Well, listen to the body and take care of it. Reclaim the body. Everything I say sounds… It doesn’t sound fresh, but I can say to people I dare you that when you are depressed, when you’re really feeling bad, I dare you to get alone in a room — so people won’t look at you — and then start moving around. Just start moving. Don’t judge. Don’t judge. You know, I bet tears come. I bet something, when it’s over, one feels different than when one began. I’ve heard this from dance therapists. I’m not advocating dance therapy but just as an experiment, just try it. Then I dare you to do it with a group of friends. And that you all look at each other, crying and moving, without judgment, and with infinite compassion. Be brave. Be brave. At a moment like this, what do you have to lose.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by brave? What is bravery in a situation like this?
BILL T. JONES: Open. Say yes. How can I be more precise? During the time of AIDS that many many people would come to see works that I made and some people said that they left because it was too painful, they had just lost a son or a daughter, what have you. I remember one woman in particular, I said to her, you lost your son, but do you know how many boys are out there right now who need somebody, need the love that you have? Do you? Are you generous enough, are you brave enough to go and give it to someone else? The great artist Agnes Martin says when a rose dies, beauty does not die because beauty is not in the rose. Where is beauty? Where is this love? If the object dies, what will you do with that love?
BILL MOYERS: Where were you eight days ago?
BILL T. JONES: Trying to get into New York to a board meeting. And I got into the bridge. I live upstate. They turned me back. I turned back. I went into the police barracks. That was a strong moment. And I saw the policemen all sitting around, those who were there manning the barracks, staring at the TV set. They were helpless. I said this is really frightening. They all shook their heads and say, yeah, man, you’re right, this is really frightening. I still don’t know what that means when the authorities themselves are grappling with something that usually we only grapple with in the privacy of our grieving moments. It’s kind of an exciting time and it’s demanding everything I have to believe the things that I’m saying here right now.
BILL MOYERS: When did the enormity of it hit you and did you go through a roller coaster of emotions like the rest of us did?
BILL T. JONES: Yes, I think when I heard from friends who were quite stoic how they had watched the towers come down… I don’t have television. I had only seen the photographs. When I… When these people were without words and people who have no spiritual belief were talking about spontaneous tears and talking about “us” the city as an “us” and when it began to… What you began to hear sounded like a Hollywood film. There was an irony in that.
BILL MOYERS: Visual effects out of a Hollywood B movie.
BILL T. JONES: Yes. And it’s, you know, tonight driving down the driveway a man I think he was an Eastern European man, he said usually in this town we think about our careers and making money. Now everybody is thinking from the gut. I said what? He said from the gut. Now everyone is thinking about, you know, what makes life really worth living. He was stating in the most simple terms what I think we have to, if we can say that, what we have to gain from this experience.
BILL MOYERS: Is the spirit of survival that you have embodied in your work, is it hard to come by?
BILL T. JONES: Oh, it is an elusive. The spirit, if you want to call it that. There’s a touch of madness, I think, in most artists. I think in myself that madness I attribute it to something I saw that was wild in my mother when she was praying when I was a child. It’s when you strip yourself of all that supports you, your ego and your world and then you try to talk directly to… I don’t want call it God. I’ll call it destiny. Try to talk directly to the circumstances of your life.
BILL MOYERS: Some people call that prayer.
BILL T. JONES: Yes, and I think at its best for me when I’m dancing, the work should feel like that.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Bill T. Jones. Thanks also to my first guest Julie Taymor. I’ll Bill Moyers. Good night.
This transcript was entered on May 1, 2015.