– Judy Elkind
Last week, Zellerbach Hall and Cal Performances hosted the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in their latest work entitled Story/Time. The piece is written and choreographed by Jones and inspired by John Cage’s Indeterminacies, a spontaneous string of one-minute spoken stories to music. Enthralled by the random, ever changing nature of this concept, Jones decided to do the same. Thus Story/Time is a sequence of 70 one-minute vignettes written and narrated by Jones, danced by his company, to music by Ted Coffey. While the Company has pre-rehearsed all possible stories, the order changes for each performance. Jones and Janet Wong, the company’s Associate Assistant Director, literally use Random.org to decide what stories will go when, involving which dancers. All this may sound crazy, but it shouldn’t be much of a surprise if you’re familiar with Bill T. Jones.
Indeed, much of the country is familiar, Jones having been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Award, Kennedy Center Honors, and two Tony Awards for Best Choreography in FELA! and Spring Awakening. Then add to all this Jones’ history of exploring forms of contemporary dance with innovative performance pieces since the founding of his company with his late partner Arnie Zane. I myself learned about Bill T. Jones in a Dance Studies class here at Berkeley, and have followed his work ever since. From the archived footage and live shows that I have been able to see, what stands out the most is how Jones’ mastery of dance so fully absorbs the audience that they find themselves responding to it and without necessarily knowing why. His work often has clear themes that express his intentions, but to a degree, it’s just the movement to music in unique, effective ways that strikes a revelatory tone when watching. This is the very reason why Story/Time, even without a plot or set themes, still resonates with an audience.
At the show, Jones walked onto the stage to do a small experiment, asking the audience to raise their hands when they thought one minute had passed since a stage crew member shouted go! People’s hands slowly wandered up after about 30 seconds, even more around 40, and hardly anyone held out until the actual minute had passed. The exercise just goes to show that one true minute is actually quite a lot, after which Jones proclaimed, “there is going to be 70 of those,” and took his place on stage. For the entirety of the show, Jones sat a table center stage, narrating his stories, often with a clock ticking the passing time in green numbers behind him. The clock matter-of-factly caught my eye, tracking Jones’ progression according to the prescribed one-minute intervals. Then about midway through the show, the clock was nonchalantly covered up, and my attention naturally drifted more fully into the performance. Five minutes later I had forgotten all about the clock, and suddenly minute long stories seemed to last and flow fairly normally. Once visibility of the clock was restored near the end, it didn’t seem to matter anymore, though at the start it had been a focal point for my attention.
The dancers alternated being on stage and participating in the work, all demonstrating extremely precise technique. The stage was kept very minimal, with just a couple stand up screens moved around for various sets and a couch as a prop. It was really the lighting and blocking for the numbers that gave the stage it’s feel, and the simplicity was beautiful, directing one’s attention to the work. The music however, while also a great composition, was at times distracting, though not accidentally. At times electronic sounds struck after quieter notes, sometimes more or less overwhelming, but this question of perception was found throughout Story/Time. Many of the audience members I spoke with mentioned how it was hard to pay attention to the whole work at times, and their minds often drifted to just one aspect above the others. Having heard Jones mention multiple times some general questions within Story/Time – listening, looking, observing, understanding, feeling, remembering – the sometimes contesting presentation fits right in, leading the audience to notice and realize things for themselves. In the end, simply having Jones present in the building, hearing him narrate, and observing the art, leaves a mark of sensation and experience, for some an overwhelmed feeling, not always understood but making that spark through performance.