In 1958, composer John Cage gave a lecture titled “Indeterminacy” that would be remembered as a milestone in post-war avant-garde composition. Sitting at a desk in front of an auditorium of people, he read a series of randomly ordered one-minute stories to the accompaniment of electronic scratches, distorted recordings of music and the occasional mashed piano chord. According to choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose latest work is based on “Indeterminacy,” Cage was effectively teaching composers to “get their own taste out of the way.”
Choreographer Bill T. Jones leads rehearsal for a work-in-progress showing of Story/Time, the capstone to his UVA residency.
In Story/Time, which previewed at Culbreth Theater last week as the capstone to Jones’ three-year UVA residency, Jones sits at a desk and reads 70 one-minute stories while the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company moves around him as a large LED keeps time. For the piece, Jones wrote a total of 140 stories about his life and choreographed a dance for each. Before the company begins rehearsing for a single performance, 70 of the vignettes are picked in random order, and a dance is created from what Jones calls a “menu of movement events,” around which UVA composer Ted Coffey arranges music from a palette of experimental sounds.
If Jones is getting his own taste out of the way in channeling Cage, he’s doing it at a time when his taste has never been so publicly lauded. In 2007, Jones received the Tony Award for Best Choreography for his work on Spring Awakening, and last year he received it again for Fela!. Though retired from dancing, he still leads the ever-acclaimed Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which he started with his late partner in 1982. At age 59, 17 years after receiving a MacArthur “genius” grant, Jones is still relevant in the world of experimental dance, a domain that requires reinvention with each new work. With Story/Time, which, like Cage’s modernist project, is both formally random and strictly structured, Jones changes the game by playing it with dice.
“It’s said that Cage didn’t give a damn about audiences,” said Jones, leaning against a table in the Culbreth Theater lobby between rehearsals for Story/Time. He is warm and generous with interviews, and has a way of letting your simple questions lead to his open-ended, contemplative ones. “I do care about them. Because I’m a showman, I want to offer something with emotions and connections. So can you have it both ways? Can you employ a system that supposedly frees you from your tastes and expectations and at the same time hope it’s going to land in a pleasing way?”
The stories that make up Story/Time are frank, clear-eyed anecdotes from Jones’ life, as precise, lyrical and aphoristic as prose poems. The experience of being hit pell-mell with one after the other, while trying to figure out their relationships to the complicated, often beautiful dances on-stage, suggests that Story/Time is a piece about memory and the construction of meaning. One story about Jones’ early life ends “Gus Jones, my father, used to say ‘You live and learn. You die and forget it all.’”
In another story, Jones tells of being taken around Charlottesville by an old driver, and describes the way the man brandished a green apple and “closed his eyes soulfully before taking the first bite.” After the show, Jones noted that he had made sure the Charlottesville story made its way into this showing of Story/Time, and that this hedge against random order wasn’t the only one in the show. “John Cage is my invisible mentor,” said Jones, “but that doesn’t meant I have to follow slavishly. We push back a little bit. Sometimes I roll the dice and it says we do this order or have this many people on stage, but after working on the piece for about a year I’m beginning to push back, making more aesthetic decisions based on intuition. In other words, in a more traditional way.”
Recurring acquaintances and subjects run through Jones’ stories, a few of which reflect upon his relationship to Cage. One of the final ones in the show told of how, when Jones began composing the pieces for Story/Time, he felt as if he heard Cage’s voice even while he was writing. “Eventually,” the vignette ends, “I stopped hearing his stories, and this disturbed me.” For the audience, as well as for Jones, Story/Time is about coming to know someone through his art. Jones isn’t afraid to make himself vulnerable, and his troupe follows him into even the darker regions of memory with gusto and virtuosity. There is a certain dissonance between the narration and the dancers interpreting it, but during occasional minute-long intervals of silence, the piece is allowed to breathe, the movement becomes the focus, and Coffey’s composition gets to lead, either through eerie stretches of ambient noise or full-on techno movements. When the clock hit 70:00, Jones looked up from his script, gave the audience a short, charged stare, and the lights went down abruptly.
While Story/Time continues to take shape, Jones has been asked to produce a piece about “a major rhythm and blues star,” and has been talking with “a major hip-hop star” about collaborating on a Broadway show. For those who want to speculate, Jones said of the unnamed hip-hop star: “He’s done sold-out stadiums, he’s done fashion, and now he wants to do Broadway. I appreciate what he does, I appreciate the mash-up, but so many of these guys flex these big media muscles and get caught up in the flow of new product, new product. I want to say ‘Can you slow down for a moment, can you be small and direct?’”
In a way, “small and direct” is exactly what Jones is in Story/Time. He sits down and tells sharp, poignant stories for an hour and change, letting his dancers complicate their meanings and allowing the overall sense to arise organically. “I do it,” he said, “because I want to know what it means to do it. And is there an audience for it? Well, we’ll see.” If last Friday’s turnout for the final show in the three-year tour of Serenade/The Proposition is any indication, Jones has nothing to worry about.