Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s “Story/Time”

11 Mar
English: Choreographer Bill T. Jones at the Ab...

Image via Wikipedia

Bill T. Jones has been on the dance scene for nearly four decades.  Breaking boundaries for black male dancers, he has lived openly as a gay man, sharing his grief over the death of his partner, and not hiding his HIV status.  His choreography transcends the expected–pairing same sex dancing partners, using full frontal nudity, and expressing the most personal ruminations. He collaborates with digital media artists, filmmakers and musicians, among others.  He has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; a Tony; several Bessies; and countless other awards. His status as an American original treasure was cemented by the Kennedy Center Honors a few years ago.

His newest piece,”Story/Time,”  blends tropes of storytelling, notions of spatial and temporal boundaries, and movements of modern dance. More than a spoken-word piece, and  more than a dance, the resulting artwork expresses some essential notion of the elements that inspire Mr. Jones.

“Story/Time” begins with Mr. Jones engaging the audience in a conceptual warm-up–each person raises their hand when they believe a minute has passed.  The idea of time and how we perceive its passing swirls through our minds as Mr. Jones takes his seat behind a desk onstage, and a green, digital stopwatch begins a count toward 70 minutes.

Mr. Jones reads stories whose connection to one another range from sharing a cast of characters to puns to the mere fact that he experienced them. Some of the stories are quite funny, others have a simple punch line joke at the end. Still others remind us of the brevity of time, as when Mr. Jones refers to something happening while “Arnie Zane was upstairs dying.” We want to memorize them, remember their lessons. But, even if you see the performance twice, you won’t memorize it: For each performance, 70 stories are chosen by chance from a bank of 150, and they are told in random order.

Meanwhile, the dancers move and swirl. They partner in groups, traditionally with man and woman, or non-traditionally man with man, woman with woman. They circle the stage as a group catching and throwing a member of the troupe. They gyrate and simulate sex acts that look loving and some that look coercive. Their bodies are real in their diverse shapes and colors–willowy, stocky, muscle-bound; black, white, Asian, Latino; male and female. The dancers cover the stage, move to one corner together or spread out each doing their own thing in one corner. Their movements are so beautiful that you wish you could isolate each one for a bit. These, too, are chosen by chance from a “menu” of 35 items.

A musical director creates live music, interrupts the reading with sound effects, and obliterates Jones’ voice with static. Much as a film camera pulls focus to a particular detail in a scene, the musical accompaniment forces the viewer to focus on the dancers or on Jones’ words. Sometimes a word pops out from behind the static only to recede again.

After a few minutes, the bright green stopwatch slips to the corner of your consciousness. You hardly notice when it disappears altogether.

Bill T. Jones and Zane (right) in Rotary Actio...

Image via Wikipedia

Ultimately, the disparate elements blend together into a harmonious expression of the essence this man.  He shares anecdotes about his mother Estela; his deceased but still beloved partner Arnie Zane; his current partner Bjorn; travels with his dance company; impressions of cities he’s visited; and the snippets of awards ceremonies that are not shown on t.v. You don’t need to know the details of Jones’ life to recognize that it has been exceptional–blessed with love and talent, he has worked tirelessly to become the post-modern master of American dance.In the program, Jones’ notes that he was inspired by John Cage’s “Indeterminancy” (1959) in which Cage sat on a stage alone reading a series of one-minute stories. As Lou Fancher has written:

“John Cage, American avant-garde composer and a pivotal figure in the dance world through his collaborations with choreographer Merce Cunningham, is best known for his chance-related compositions. His ambitious unraveling of instrumentation, performance and silence itself has caused a seismic shift for dancemakers, musicians, writers and visual artists from the 1950s to today.”

Jones’ writes that he conceived “Story/Time” such that it would be similar to Cage’s piece, with Jones’ alone on stage in a sort of performance art piece. He quickly realized that the dancers were necessary to how he tells a story. This is Jones’s first performance since retiring from dancing six years ago. In some ways, you feel like the dancers are the ideas inside his head, dancing stories. Coming from the modernist traditions of both Cage and Cunningham, Jones continues in “Story/Time” to converse with his great predecessors.

He tells us that listening, hearing, seeing and feeling are all “germane to this piece,” coaxing us to fall into the words, the dance, the sounds, to absorb it all, to use all of our senses.

Suddenly, the green clock reappears, flashing 65:00 and counting. Oh no, I thought, only five more minutes? I want to sit here and let this wash over me some more.

“There is a saying, you live, you learn, you die, you forget,” Jones repeats, talking of a life lesson his father taught him.  “I have learned,” he continues,” that you live, you learn, you forget, you die.” The crowd chuckles then explodes into applause as the curtain drops. I can’t help but think that Bill T. Jones has written his own elegy with this piece, a marvelous, witty, audacious masterpiece in which he looks back on a life lived knowing that he is in his final act, grateful for every minute he has had. And we are grateful for every minute he has shared with us.

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