Experimentalist, formalist, populist, provocateur—dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones has inhabited a variety of creative identities in his career. And at 61, he could well rest on his laurels, including Tony Awards for Fela! and Spring Awakening, a MacArthur Award, and a Kennedy Center Honor. But his roster of works keeps growing. Story/Time, which makes its Chicago debut this month when the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company appears at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, takes its cue from the days before the avant-garde was fully commodified, when contemporary dance remained far from mainstream.
Looking back at his early years in the New York of the late ’70s, Jones says, “Dance then was this huge, exciting new planet that we had discovered, and if you had enough chutzpah, you could go anywhere on that planet.” He and his late partner, Arnie Zane, reveled in the spirit of openness that pervaded the downtown scene, and the willingness among artists to blur disciplines and mix media in an effort to make work utterly their own. “We were great fans of independent film as Jonas Mekas described it, a cinema of light and shade that was suspicious of narrative and storytelling. I was by nature a storyteller, but I was trying to learn something about that which is nonlinear, that which is not based in narrative, trying to get at a movement expressionism.”
With Story/Time, Jones references a work from an earlier era of experimentation: John Cage’s Indeterminacy (1959) in which the groundbreaking composer read a number of very short stories against his own compositions. In his take on that work (and Cage’s embrace of randomness as a structural strategy), Jones sits at a table and recites 70 one minute stories that share time, if not company, with Ted Coffey’s score and the comings and goings of his dancers. The order of each element changes from one performance to another, an approach that challenges the notion of the fixed, finished work.
The dancers’ movements—motifs, phrases, tasks—are drawn from pieces spanning the company’s 30 years. Jones’s stories range from things his parents told him to a 16th-century flatulence joke involving Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Oxford. “I am a very different man than John Cage; my time is a very different time than when he came up with his stories,” remarks Jones. “And yet, I am trying to toe the line, to let the process tell me—as it did him—things I could not have thought of myself.”
With text, sound, and movement operating independently, Story/Time possesses the potential for subtle chaos. “For the first minutes, the dance drives me crazy,” admits Jones. “But there comes a moment, or at least I hope there comes a moment, when the viewer can relax. Sometimes you listen to the story; sometimes you watch the dance. Sometimes there are wonderful synchronicities in which an innocent phrase from the story collides with something you see happening onstage, and there’s a certain meaning that sends you spinning.” October 24–26 at The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, 1306 S. Michigan Ave., 312-369-8330