Bill T. Jones’s “Story/Time” in One Minute Increments

Bill T. Jones and Company (@Paul B. Goode)

It’s dance, text, original music, randomness, in 70 minutes. It’s esoteric. And it’s fun.  “Story/Time” is a game, or a puzzle.  The audience is invited to play.    So says Bill T. Jones, the dancer/choreographer who created the blend of dance, movement and story that premieres at Montclair’s Peak Performances  on Saturday January 21 and runs through the 29th.  The piece, a co-commission from Peak Performances and from the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is inspired by John Cage’s 1959 “Indeterminacy,” which blended one-minute stories by Cage while David Tudor performed on the piano.  In “Story/Time”, a seated Jones reads one-minute stories from his life while dancers from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company perform to an original score by Ted Coffey.  It sounds heavy– but it includes such things as a “grand fart joke” about Queen Elizabeth.  Audience members (and the general public) are encouraged to tweet their own stories for a display in the lobby monitor.

Jones and his company, now in its 29th year, are known for work that interacts with text, and Jones is also known to the theatre world as the innovative choreographer of Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” and “FELA!” (which he also co-conceived, co-wrote and directed).  Jones won the 2007 and 2010 Tony Awards in Choreography for both shows.  But this piece, he told Baristanet by telephone, is “very personal. I’m very nervous about it, and very excited about it.  I haven’t been onstage in quite a few years– I retired six years ago — and now I’m back onstage.  I’m not dancing, but I’m doing something I love, telling stories and singing.”

(@Paul B. Goode)

He has a wonderful  voice, deep and rich, which makes a compelling counterpart for the haunting music and striking poses of the dancers.  “My earliest experiences were listening to my parents tell stories,” Jones said.  “They would sing and act them out. It was a whole gestalt, and it has always stayed with me.  One of my first pieces was a related story, with dancing in an abstract way.  The combination of abstract movement and what you heard and felt was greater than the sum of its parts.”

There is no plot per se, no typical throughline.  Jones and his associate director Janet Wong organize the stories in the 70-minute show through consulting, a site which, as its name suggests randomizes all kinds of things (lists, calendar dates, white noise), before they tweak it.  It will never be the same show twice.  Jones had written 165 stories when we spoke, with 8 just that morning.  He hopes to make it to at least 180.  But only 60 will be read at a performance.    There’s a clock ticking onstage to help the viewer orient himself, so nobody thinks “Oh my god will this never end,” Jones laughs.  “You will know where you are, and when it’s coming to a close, so what’s there to be anxious about?”

Unlike Cage’s strict electronica, Coffey, a composer and instructor at the University of Virginia, has used different styles, including some that reference classical, folk and jazz, as well as borrowing, occasionally, from Cage.  Sometimes, Jones explained, the music is totally free; at other times it’s connected to the story.  “We set out not to imitate the way John Cage would have worked in 1958-1960 but to learn something from it.”

The stories are all highly personal to Jones., and they are all strictly one minute long.  “They’re all time-based expressions.  Can you listen to a complex story, referencing people and places, looking at a complex and specific stage, and be relaxed enough to let your brain do the work?  Our brain is designed to make connections.”  The choreography involves some pieces that go back as far as 1980, and some that are as recently worked out as last week.  Some of it, Jones explained, is more imagistic than dance like, with people seated on a couch doing gestures.  But they are not interpretations of the words.

“One of the motifs is people rolling on the floor.  That was something that came from my wanting the dancers not to be upright and dancing all the time then just rolling. I wrote a story about my mother’s grief, and she’s described by my sister as rolling on the floor in her grief.  I could put that story together with that image and probably it would be satisfying emotionally, but it would be a little too literal.  So I resist.  Everything is chosen by a chance procedure– but that is one of the places where I chose to break my won rules about chance.”

Writing a story in one minute  is hard work.  Tweeting it in 140 characters or less will also be difficult, but Thomas Miller, Marketing and Media Specialist at Peak Performances, thinks it will engage the audiences.  If, he says, all art asks questions — a point made by Bill T. Jones — the Twitter feed is about finding your own answers.  The public’s tweets scroll on the monitor display in the lobby that usually shows preview videos, and all the tweets will be archived inhouse.  That shouldn’t deter anyone from participating, because, says Miller, “every tweet in the twitterverse is stored in the Library of Congress from now until the end of time.”  Tweets should include #storytimemsu.

Everyone has a story worth telling.  When Jones delivers the Toni Morrison lectures at Princeton in April, he will discuss “Story/Time” and its creation.  “To work with [Cage’s] idea is a comfort and a provocation.  It’s a comfort, because I can bring everything that’s personal, analytical, abstract in my stories, together with any movements, and they don’t have to be sustained over long periods of time.  Using indeterminate or chance procedures gives you a lot of freedom.  It’s provocative, because the assumptions he made as an artist, as a white man from a certain generation and class, are very different from what motivates me as a black man from a certain generation and class in my dancing.”  One difference may be that Cage is very interested in communicating with an audience.

In addition to Montclair, the show will travel to Minnesota, California, Arizona, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Virginia.  People will meet it differently in different places, but then, they will meet it differently from person to person.  The show is about making stories out of randomness, about constructing meaning.

“When you’re in a strange city, you don’t know anything about the culture or people, and after you find your hotel and go out walking in the street you start having an experience.  Why do you respond to this street, and not that one?  Why do you remember this vendor and that little old lady selling ribbons?  What are your souvenirs, your memories?

In “Story/Time,” you’re invited to a country.  It’s an experience that will be odd, but there are things that you will respond to if you’re quiet enough, and not anxious about it.”

The only winner in this game, he says, is you.

“Storytime” plays at the Alexander Kasser Theater, Peak Performances.  Jan. 21- 29:  Jan. 21 and 28, 8 pm, Jan. 23 and 29, 3 pm; Jan. 26 and 27, 7:30 p.m.   1 Normal Avenue, Montclair.  Tickets are available at the box office or 973-655-5112

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