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Bill T. Jones: True Story

February 23, 2012

Bill T. Jones He turned 60 on Feb. 15 and has stopped dancing. But Bill T. Jones, whose compelling performances and unique choreography have always been accentuated by galaxies of ideas, expressed with humor, rage, and reason via poetry and theater, politics and song, is still at the center of his stage.

This weekend, he’ll narrate his newest work, Story/Time, at Zellerbach Hall as part of the Cal Performances series. Inspired by composer John Cage’s extremely short stories, Indeterminacy, as well as by his musical philosophy, Story/Time consists of 70 randomly chosen one-minute stories, with dance by the nine members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. The scenic design is by Jones’ partner, Bjorn Ameling.

Jones credits Cage for introducing him to modernism, the aesthetic central to his art. He was a freshman at the State University of New York at Binghamton when he went to a John Cage event. Jones had begun to dance when his niece told him he should not go to track practice (he was a runner) but should take African dance classes instead.

A high school athlete who had moved to New York State from Florida, Jones, one of 12 children from a poor family, was at college on scholarship. Now here he was, watching John Cage.

“I was a young black man from upstate New York, my family were potato pickers, I did not know what art was,” Jones recalled in a recent telephone interview. “It was a mind-blowing experience, an alteration of consequence.” To Jones, modernism seemed “an extension of spiritual struggle and spiritual development. It was movement not based on anyone else’s instructions. It was the epitome of freedom. There was the freedom to fall in love with Arnie Zane, the freedom to make dance that involved only moving the back, arms, hips, and head.”

Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane Dance CompanyIt was the ’70s. Jones was at a “liberal arts, primarily Jewish school in upstate New York, where people were asserting their ethnic roots and identities in a very liberal environment. I fell in love,” he said, “with a poetic sweat. I was hooked on dance.”

As Jones studied the work of modern dance leading light Martha Graham, he became aware of her connection to Merce Cunningham, and Cunningham’s to John Cage. When Jones met Arnie Zane — a short, gay, Jewish photography student who decided to study dance because Jones did — he felt connected. “All this was a wonderful stew of events. This was the truth of life. All one needed was a discipline that organized the world. John Cage constituted the pinnacle.”

Cage, said Jones, was “a great giver of permission to composers, dancers, and visual artists, and I think I was one of them.” Jones met Cage late in life, but they were never close. Nor did he know Cage’s partner, Cunningham — “my favorite choreographer” — well, though he remembers once going up to him after a dinner party (“I’d had a little too much wine”) and thanking him for all he had done, then kissing him on the cheek.

Jones has had a lengthy relationship with the Bay Area, presenting his work at Cal Performances as well as at the Yerba Buena Center. He and Zane lived in San Francisco from 1972 to 1974, he said, and drew a sense of freedom from the spiritual residue of the City’s 1966 Summer of Love. Jimi Hendrix’s authenticity, too, had inspired Jones when, at 17, he was at Woodstock.

Today, Jones said, he’s “proudly Eurocentrist” rather than Afrocentrist. He’s directed opera and choreographed to classics; his company is racially diverse. And yet his work remains strongly informed by African-American history. In 2009, his work Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray, a lively meditation on Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King Jr., but also, of course, about Jones and the world in which we find ourselves, toured the country.

Last year, Jones became the executive artistic director of New York Live Arts, a merging of Dance Theater Workshop — long a cornerstone of Manhattan’s downtown modern dance scene — and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which the couple founded in 1982. Zane died in 1988 of AIDS. Jones is HIV positive, but it seems not to have slowed him down.

To Jones, modernism seemed “the epitome of freedom.”

Working in two worlds — high art and popular culture (in fact, his next project is Superfly on Broadway) — Jones has amassed honors that can only be termed “too numerous to mention.” These include a MacArthur “genius” grant, a Kennedy Center Honor, two Tony Awards (choreography for Spring Awakening in 2007, and for FELA in 2010), and multiple honorary doctorates. He even wrote a gripping autobiography, Last Night on Earth. He is also the dancemaker whose forceful and poignant Still/Here, about living with life-threatening diseases, inspired the famed New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce to attack it without ever seeing it. It was, she said, “victim art,” and therefore not reviewable.

For Story/Time, the 70 stories chosen for each performance from among 170 Jones has written are determined using chance, namely the generator at www.random.org. The order of the dances being presented — in all, Jones, said, 35 “events,” drawn from company repertory as well as from class exercises choreographed by his associate director, Janet Wong — is also randomly changed, every two performances.

He and Wong tweak each show to make it better than purely random — changing, if they think it will work better, lighting, placement of screens, or the entrances of the dancers.

Before each performance, the dancers are given a printed sheet with the minutes, the events, and the locations on the stage. It takes, Jones said, a good memory and a special breed of dancer, with the physical and mental strength to rapidly change techniques and styles. “You see the dancers dancing bravely, but also their brains are working. It isn’t just the ecstasy of pure movement, it’s the thing about thought.” Jones credits the rest of the company, particularly Wong, “the teacher, the architect, the scientist,” for their choreographic input, though, he says, “I am the conceiver and director.”

Story/Time’s music, created by Ted Coffey, is performed on keyboard, with three singers. Jones was excited that Coffey, whom he met at the University of Virginia, had studied with modernist composer Christian Wolff, a member of Cage’s New York circle. “He’s a very intelligent young man, but also very open to folk music, pop music, and jazz,” Jones said. “We had a lively discussion around my saying, ‘We don’t want this associated with electronica — I don’t mean to be pejorative …,’ and he’s taken his musical cues from the stories.”

“It isn’t just the ecstasy of pure movement, it’s the thing about thought.” – Bill T. Jones

Jones described one of his stories, in which he took his mother to visit Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ “showplace” concentration camp near Prague, where many artists were imprisoned and murdered. He and his mother were sitting at a memorial with rolling hills and white markers. “My mother didn’t understand the purpose of the place. She said, ‘Son, if you want to learn to play the guitar, you have to sit there all night in the graveyard, and in the morning you will have learned.’” The density of the tale and its emotional punch is pure Jones.

This led Jones to a discussion of the folk song John Henry. Sampled as “just a snippet of Lead Belly,” it dovetails the Civil War and its folk music into the left-wing politics of the 1930s. “Then there’s a bit from Fiddlin’ John Carson,” a southern country musician in the new recording industry of the 1920s. “That’s how the music works,” Jones said.

“I am besotted with the music of Odetta. She sings Take This Hammer, a prison work song. I sing it, the dancers sing it, there are blues songs from my past. There’s a freewheeling sense of it being mid-20th century inspired.

“I truly think the piece rewards if you see it more than once,” Jones added. “In some way, it is what all art shows us about the fleeting nature of experience. When you see Story/Time in two different inclinations, it comes home with great clarity and power.”

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.