Review: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company Shines in Story/Time
In 2010, Bill T. Jones was honored with the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. This week, in the Ted Shawn Theatre, audiences saw indisputable evidence of why this award was bestowed upon him. Story/Time, a multimedia, full-evening work, is a 70-minute tour de force, showing Jones at the peak of his formidable powers. And it brings a much-welcome return of Jones himself to the stage in a performance that is riveting, even if he’s not technically dancing.
Before the piece begins, following Ella Baff’s introductory words and trademark catch-phrase, Let’s dance, Jones strides onto the stage to address the audience with a sort of foreword to the evening, reinforcing Baff’s statements that we can look, we can listen, we can look and listen, and recounting a phrase attributed to composer Henry Cowell, about getting rid of the glue, referring to transitions in music. Cowell was a mentor to many experimental composers of the mid-20th century, including John Cage, a friend of Jones, and one of the inspirations of Story/Time, a work created this year, the centenary of Cage’s birth. He then gives the audience a “warm-up,” asking us to raise our hands when we think a minute of silence has passed. After he signals the beginning, arms shoot up after 20 seconds, 30 seconds; most hands go up before the 60-second mark. Time, it seems, is elastic; a minute of silence is like an eternity.
Not so with words, music, and dance; a minute flashes by in an instant, as we see from the very first of 70 minute-long stories that Jones reads, seated center stage at a white desk lined with green apples, an electronic timer counting the seconds mounted on the stage wall behind him, each minute also marked by a chime. What that first story is depends on when you see the show; Jones has incorporated the element of chance, pioneered by Cage and his partner in life and love, the legendary dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, into Story/Time. So while Jones has written more than 100 of these minute-long stories, which ones he reads in any given performance, and in what order, is for the most part left to chance.
Story/Time also includes an ever-changing electronic score, performed live by Ted Coffey, and fine dancing by nine performers of the Bill T.Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. The element of chance does not preclude set choreographic phrases, as in one fictional narrative about a family unable to make its mortgage and the deadly consequences, which is repeated several times, in different ways, with varying kinetic expressions. (It’s even acted out in a minute of silence.) And the one-minute stricture is occasionally broken, as in one two-minute family story about Alzheimer’s disease, or a two-minute stretch of silence during which the ensemble continues to dance. Even when the timer rises out of view and the time-keeping chimes end, we become well acquainted with this particular chunk of time.
Most of the stories Jones reads are tales from his life – his family history; his relationship with Arnie Zane, who died in 1988; his encounters with other celebrated artists, including Cage, Cunningham, and Max Roach; his more-recent experiences in the mesas of Arizona and New Mexico. Sometimes the score, largely electronic, full of Cage-like dissonance and clanging noise, swells to drowns out Jones’ voice.
The dance never does; this is a sterling example of how movement, words, score, and set work together seamlessly, even despite the chance element. The dancers are wonderful to watch, an ensemble of individuals with unique personalities that shine through. They, too, get a word in every now and then, usually barking out a command or cue to each other. They cluster and disperse like a flock of birds, tussle, leap into each others’ arms, occasionally grab one of those apples off the desk, and, in one intense sequence roll in slow motion across a dark stage, lit only by harsh lights that cut through fog effects and glare into the audience, obscuring the view so that it comes as a surprise to realize two of the dancers are nude.
Story/Time could well become the dance that Jones is known for in perpetuity. It’s a momentous triumph that calls for repeat viewing, and not only because it changes each time it is performed. It’s rich in content and spirit, imbued with feeling, and masterfully executed.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow
Story/Time at the Ted Shawn Theatre
Through July 29