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Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

'Story/Time'

by Carmel Morgan

July 31, 2012 -- Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Filene Center, Vienna, VA

I try to go once a year in the summer to see dance at Wolf Trap, the nation’s only national park for the performing arts, which is located outside of Washington, DC. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company prompted me to make this year’s trip to Filene Center, Wolf Trap’s popular outdoor ampitheater. While lawn tickets are available for performances at a great discount, and they make sense for music concerts, I can’t imagine that those seated on the lawn get much of a view when the performers are dancers. The Filene Center stage is large, and even seated in-house I get the sense that the dancers are sometimes swallowed by the stage’s vastness, which seems to extend into nature beyond its actual borders. There’s definitely something special about having your vision of the stage include stars, trees, grass, etc., at its periphery.

In the performance of the experimental work “Story/Time” (2012), Bill T. Jones himself took center stage. At a white table, with a white shirt, and green apples in a row in front of him, Jones sat and recited short stories. His lovely deep voice struck me as just right for bedtime tales. The mostly minute-long tales told by Jones, however, were less bedtime stories than journal entries consisting primarily of reminiscences about his past. He continually mentioned friends and family, launching the audience into his life history in a very personal manner. Nine dancers (including recent addition Joseph Poulson, whose biography was even shorter than Jones’ stories – merely “joined the company in July 2012”), danced while Jones read, and Ted Coffey composed live music on the spot.

To begin the evening, like in a kindergarten class, Jones asked the audience think about what the length of one minute feels like, and then directed audience members to raise a hand when they felt that a minute had elapsed (no cheating allowed!). Most hands flew up (mine, too) well before one minute had actually gone by. In a society that often seems rushed, I guess the result of this exercise wasn’t a surprise.

At first, as Jones started to read, there was a large digital clock hanging above the stage, numbers glowing in easy-to-read neon green. After a little over 17 minutes, the clock lifted and disappeared. By that time, the clock’s disappearance was a relief. I suspect that I was not the only person who had more or less quit looking at the clock already, content to keep my eyes on the dancing instead. If you’re truly absorbed in watching dance, then you naturally lose track of time. This indeed may have been the purpose of having the clock go away. The clock made its reappearance at the very end of the 70 minutes of dance in “Story/Time” as if to remind us of what we’d forgotten.

In between the clock’s coming and going, dancers moved fluidly from one short story to the next. They wove an appealing tapestry between the largely disjointed stories, which according to the director’s note in the program were read in an order determined by chance. Jones stated that “Story/Time” was created in direct response to John Cage’s 1958 work “Indeterminacy,” in which Cage read one-minute stories alone on a stage. Jones added dancing, and of course, his own stories plus Coffey’s music to craft a work that like Cage’s “Indeterminacy” reflects upon chance. The late master choreographer Merce Cunningham, who is mentioned in Jones’ stories, frequently collaborated with Cage and made pieces that rely on random ordering. Jones’ “Story/Time” is surely a tribute to both Cunningham and Cage. However, with Cunningham, I saw unfamiliar movement glued to together in highly unusual ways. With Jones, the movement in “Story/Time” retained a hard-to-describe sort of familiarity that clearly carried the distinct mark of its choreographer and did not remind of me of Cunningham much at all.

That Jones’ choreography seemed somehow less random and less unique to me than Cunningham’s is neither here nor there, really. I enjoyed watching the dancing in “Story/Time.” The dancers aptly clung to each other in rolling contact-like sequences – graceful, controlled, and flexible. Bodies tumbled off backs. When Jones read about building railroads, dancers, attired in ordinary, simple, solid-colored workout wear, were carried high above like railroad planks transferred overhead, echoing the literal words accompanying them. At most other times, the dancing followed the stories less literally. I observed a lot of doubling. Groups and individuals regularly mirrored each other. Overall, the dancing appeared soft and precise, spiritual and elastic, buoyant but careful.

Among the pretty prose, I noticed multiple mentions of snow and spring and travel. Those images certainly imbued the work with the passage of time. Jones took occasional long pauses, which also contributed to an awareness of time ticking ahead. Coffey’s music played plenty of tricks. For example, the music completely drowned out Jones’ voice for a few moments, and then gradually quieted so that Jones’ voice emerged again out of the crashing blasts.

In one story, Jones recalled someone warning him that he would be “into nostalgia” one day. That day has arrived in “Story/Time.” The nostalgia is sweet and appropriate for an aging artist who has led a life full of interesting ideas, experiences, and creative inspiration. The point of “Story/Time,” I felt, was not to take it ALL in. Rather, I felt that the point was to sit back, immerse yourself, and let the work wash over you in whatever way your attention took you – from the clock, to the dancing, to the words, to the music, to the lighting design, to the spare set and costumes (which did change now and then), and around and around. Alert audience members surely discerned rewarding patterns and repetition like I did, and walked away with an increased appreciation for the role of chance in our fleeting lives.

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