KEEPING IT FRESH Bill T. Jones.
Over the course of his almost 40-year career, choreographer Bill T. Jones has often told stories in his dance pieces. Some were based on others' works or lives (he won Tonys for Spring Awakening and Fela!); some tackled a familiar tale (Noah and the flood in Another Evening: I Bow Down); still others took on true-life experiences (1994's Still/Here). For his newest work, Story/Time, Jones has brought together 70 one-minute non-fiction stories and collaborated with composer Ted Coffey and nine dancers from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company to sculpt a multi-layered, multi-media performance. Story/Time will be presented by FirstWorks on March 10 at the Vets (note: the piece contains strong language and adult themes).
As a child, Jones listened to his parents telling stories and, when he wasn't dreaming of performing, he wanted to be an English teacher. Inspired by the structure of John Cage's 90 minutes of one-minute stories in Indeterminacy, Jones drew on his own memories, stories from his dancers, history books, and other written resources.
"How they are drafted and put together for performance is quite different than the way I've used stories in my career," Jones noted in a recent phone conversation from Manhattan. "One thing about John Cage — he was giving permission to put everything in a hopper and spin it, so it's outside my control. Because of the whole spectrum of stories here, the audience has to ride the roller coaster with me. It's scarier [than I Bow Down] and frightening and exhilarating as well."
Jones sits at a desk onstage, reading the stories, as the dancers move around him. His production manager makes a new order of the stories every day and there is a new structure for the dance sections every two performances.
"I like to create a field of events and textures," Jones explained, "and then, because of repetitions and recontextualizations, the meanings shift and change.
"We do have our crafted moments," he added. "They consolidate lighting, story, and movement. Those are repeated even though they may be in different places in the whole piece; they are held intact."
One of those is "the wipe-out," in which Coffey's music becomes so loud that Jones's voice is drowned out and you only see his mouth moving. Where that sequence is placed is changed almost every night, as they refine the piece, which premiered in January. Another element that mutates but is always present is a lineup of green apples across the front of Jones's desk, with dancers sometimes taking away one or more to use as props.
"The apples popped into my consciousness because I had seen a man with a green apple in his brown jacket pocket, which he later retrieved and polished," Jones recalled. "For me, it was a touching, poignant, and poetic image. So I brought a couple dozen apples to rehearsal, and the dancers made a kind of logic out of them — and they became a counterpoint to the physical body."
With a passion for visual arts, Jones has sometimes suggested that audiences look at modern dance as at abstract painting: "It isn't that I'm painting a picture in Story/Time — I'm laying out a table. Then, through sleight of hand, through the bodies of the dancers, through the changing light, we begin to make things, and all these things are rich to me."