Jacob's Pillow: Can't stop the momentum of Bill T. Jones

Tuesday July 24, 2012

BECKET -- As that popular song goes, Bill T. Jones almost has it all.

Widely praised for the artistic achievement of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which is marking its 30th anniversary this year, Jones has leaped to the enviable spot that would allow him to rest on his laurels, among them two Tony Awards ("Spring Awakening" in 2007; "Fela!" in 2010); a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant (1994); and a Kennedy Center Honor (2010).

But no, really he cannot halt the momentum, even though he stopped dancing five years ago.

"My last official performance was at the Louvre in Paris," he explained in a phone chat from New York one morning last week. "I decided to retire after that to lower the impact on the body," a reasonable decision at the time for a man of 55.

Still, as he ruminated further, "There's a mechanism in having a career at the stage mine is at, on the one hand there's always the company that has to be nurtured and given projects."

And the current project on which Jones has settled is intriguing, one that will unfold for local audiences beginning Wednesday evening at 8 on the stage of the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

"Story/Time," simply explained, has Jones seated at a table in the middle of the playing area reading stories.

But simplicity does not appear to be Bill T. Jones' way of doing things, and the project actually is much more complex.

The idea for "Story/Time," according to Jones, was inspired by John Cage, specifically the legendary artist and composer's "Indeterminacy," a work from 1958 in which Cage sat alone on stage reading an unbroken stream of one-minute stories to a small audience.

In "Story/Time," Jones reads his own one-minute stories amid a consummate landscape of dance and original music.

Jones happened upon Ted Coffey, an associate professor of music at the University of Virginia, during a panel discussion on the role of chance in the creative process. Impressed with Coffey's understanding of the mid-20th-century avant-garde aesthetic, Jones said Coffey had been influenced by Cage through a teacher, Christian Wolff, who had studied composition with Cage in the 1950s.

"I asked Ted, would he like to go on this journey with me," recalled Jones, "and suddenly the whole company was involved."

Cage appealed

Jones said the Cage idea especially appealed to him as a way of returning to the stage. "I didn't want to give just a one-man show of reminiscences," he said. Being a big fan of Cage, sharing his love of language, this seemed ideal.

Cage had organized his stories without any concern about an overall arc, according to Jones. "It was purely on time," Jones said, "each story, be it 20 or 200 words, was for the same amount of time, organized in one minute."

Some of Jones' stories reach far back, "stories," Jones said, "told to me by my mother, stories told to my mother by my grandmother, stories from newspapers; there is a flatulence joke from the 17th century; stories from Sufi folklore, Native American folklore. A lot of them are delivered in the first person -- ‘I thought this,' ‘I remember this.' "

He also recalls his days with Arnie Zane, the photographer, dancer and choreographer. "Arnie Zane is always with me," said Jones, "and the stories talk about Arnie's and my life in the ‘70s, about teaching duets that Arnie and I made to this particular company."

The two developed landmark duets on such topics as racism, religion, sexism, and the nuclear age. Zane passed away in 1988, at the age of 39.

Menu changes

Each performance of "Story/Time" is different, running exactly 70 minutes, with somewhat fewer than 70 of the 173 stories that Jones has written, depending on the number of pauses in the text delivery.

The menu changes every two days, explained Jones. "Afternoons are quite busy so dancers can master the menu," Jones suggested. "Ted uses random procedures. He has an I Ching application on his computer, and there is an elaborate sound system. John Crawford, our sound engineer, works with Ted, and they get amazing things happening that come out of chance procedure."

Jones said the three elements work on modalities -- "One modality is Bill doing a story, another is Ted Coffey making music, and the third is what dancers are doing. These modalities can be mixed and matched," he said, so that one, two or all three might be employed at once. "And sometimes all the modalities are inactivated, and everything stops. It's quite a powerful moment."

One dictum from Cage that Jones has heeded and applied: "If artists can get their tastes out of the way, then audiences can bring their own meaning to the work and discover the relationships of the stories, the music and the dance."

Who: Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company

What: "Story/Time"

When: Wednesday through Sunday. Eves.: Wed.-Sat. 8. Mats.: Sat., Sun. 2

Where: Jacob's Pillow, Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket

Tickets: $64-$39

How: (413) 243-0745; jacobspillow.org; at the box office


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