Singing clear through a forest of signs: On Bill T. Joness Story/Time, the performance and the book
The most famous description of Bill T. Jones’s work comes from Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice, who wrote that his duets with Arnie Zane paired “a cool, intellectual approach to form along with hot content.” The heat of the content came from the explicit connection between two gay lovers of different racial identities dancing together onstage, and the inherently political message this conveyed. However “cool” the form, Jones could never really belong to the rest of the post-structuralist dance scene and its disdain for direct story-telling. The way in which his work drew from real life experience was made all too clear for those looking for conceptualisms.
Even after spending 40 years at the forefront of the modern dance world, Jones still thinks of himself as an outlier. He’s frustrated that he can’t find an “intellectual home,” an association of people and ideas that he can call his own. We all want to belong to the clubs that won’t accept us as members. In the case of Jones, this complex played itself out in relation to John Cage, the modernist composer known for his radical use of chance in the composition process. “He literally represented for me everything cool and removed and sophisticated at a time when I was trying to wend my way into the art world,” Jones said in a recent interview. He goes on to describe a mutual friend trying to get Cage interested in the Jones/Zane collaborations. “[He was] like ‘No way!’ We were too ‘obvious.’ We were too ‘in your face.’”
This must have hurt. To Jones, Cage continues to loom heroic, larger-than-life, representing “the icon of modernism.” The artistic relationship is that of father and son; Jones cites a 1972 performance of Cage’s at SUNY/Binghamton as his “second birth, or coming into consciousness, of the world of ideas or what one might call a tradition of artistic discourse.”
Like a son bereft of an inheritance, Jones had to wander off in order to find his own creed. He never aligned himself with a definitive style, venue, or patron audience, in recent years shuttling between his company’s base at New York Live Arts (NYLA) and the Broadway stage (in 2007 he won a Tony for Spring Awakening). His concerns have ranged from visual beauty in its pure abstraction to intensely personal messages that serve as calls to social consciousness. I respect him for this. Given that he’s received every award from the MacArthur to the National Medal of the Arts, at this point in his career he could settle into something comfortable and still be remembered as an icon. Instead he keeps asking questions and doesn’t seem satisfied by the given answers. He describes the certainty of this age as being “toxic.” “No, I am not a polemicist. If anything I’m a poet,” he said in an interview over a decade ago.
The titles of his works suggest as much. Many feature slashes: Still/Here, Chapel/Chapter, Serenade/The Proposition, Everybody Works/All Beasts Count, and Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, among others. The virgules join disparate ideas, or separate phrases which usually go together. They turn the titles into short, two-line poems. The reader is confronted with an either/or, eyes flickering from one side of the punctuation mark to the other. This division of words allows for a double name, a complication of the interpretive process. Jones doesn’t frame his work with an easy decoded language—or maybe he just can’t make up his mind. He is 62-years-old and still searching.
Jones first developed Story/Time in 2012, after spending three years off the stage. He confesses that in this time he became depressed (pretty typical after the “first death,” what Martha Graham called a dancer’s retirement). It was during this time that he turned back to Cage. He decided to adapt Indeterminacy (1959), a work in which Cage read minute-long stories drawn from a collection at random.
In Story/Time, this is exactly what Jones does with his own vignettes and anecdotes. He can perform again now that he’s talking instead of dancing, sitting at a simple white desk during most of the performance. When he leaves his chair to go to a corner of the theater, he still possesses every bit of a dancer’s stage presence, his musculature creating its own energy field. His voice is deep and lullaby-smooth, and there’s an authority about it that makes me want to believe anything he says. Sometimes he sings. Sometimes he pauses for a long breath, and the speaking seems arranged in musical stanzas.
His stories are personal, recounting conversations with celebrity artist types, dreams dreamt on a New Mexican mesa, memories of family. The tone never changes: he delivers lines that are at turns wry, reflective, or full of regret. Homage is paid to Zane, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1988. Jones’s philosophizing gets a bit heavy-handed at times (are we really “nostalgic for the future”?) but the stories move at a fast clip, and most of them are very entertaining. Common themes emerge—many of the scenes take place in springtime, for example—but the program tells us that there’s no overarching plot, as the stories have been selected at random from an online sequence generator.
As Jones talks, dancers of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company move on and off the stage. Their gestures are athletic and imprecise, and before beginning a phrase they occasionally shout out a collective “Huh!” as if preparing for a karate chop. There are no solos. In the midst of the frenetic mass, two people will occasionally break away from the crowd and reach tentatively towards one another, joining hands. Just as the stories are selected randomly, so is the choreography; most of the sequences have been recycled from previous works in the company repertoire, and they certainly serve no illustrative purpose to whatever Jones says. Even so, the immediate impulse is to search for a relation between the movement and language.
The use of Indeterminacy’s structure reveals just how different Jones is from his predecessor. The whole exercise is like a kid putting on his father’s jacket. He’s not just playing dress-up or make-believe; he’s also trying to understand exactly what differentiates him from his dad. The too-long sleeves and too-broad shoulders demonstrate this difference, while showing the boy that he will eventually grow up, too. For Jones, the suit he wanted to inherit never quite fit. In Story/Time: The Life of an Idea (Princeton University Press), Jones traces the history of this misfitting, trying to understand all that prevented him from being made into Cage’s artistic image.
Cage was famous for privileging the process of composition over the actual performance, saying that he could care less about what the audience thought. He repeatedly claimed that his music held no story or higher meaning, disavowing himself of the artistic will and ego in order to make room for that which happened on its own. Jones, on the other hand, wants to say something, and he wants the audience to begin to understand what he is saying. He can’t leave everything to chance; in the midst of the randomly selected stories, he inserts a few predetermined ones in order to give a narrative arc, or “help the audience’s heart settle.” While engaging with Cage, Jones is also trying to trump him, to say that the artist can retain himself—his emotions, memories, and intentions—in his works. Remembering the time when he had just entered the art scene, Jones writes: “All those hours dancing in the light of the jukebox amounted to nothing—or so I had come to think.” He seems to have since changed his mind.
Jones cites his upbringing in a community of Black migrant workers as one of the primary reasons why he could never strip himself down to a strictly theoretical composition process. He spent his Sunday mornings listening to a Baptist preacher, and the rhetoric lingers; he still has “a desire for transcendence,” even if this desire has played out in alternate religious practices. “I maintain that there is value in the idea of a true and authentic self,” he tells us. The belief stems from a childhood spent witnessing the struggles of the Civil Rights movement; when one's very right to existence has been questioned, it’s probably more difficult to think of the self as a mere construct.
The book itself is worthy of a coffee table, hardcover with a canvas binding. On the front Jones stares straight at the reader, suggesting that the essence of his person is still rooted in the physical. He calls Story/Time “a performance waiting to be a document,” and this is reflected in the layout of the book. Its central pages are devoted to 60 (presumably randomly selected) stories, the words mapped out between brackets with six ten-second sections. A selection of photographs follow the texts, and the book begins and ends with two short lectures, “Past Time” and “With Time.”
Jones is evidently preoccupied with the terms in which his legacy will live on. In a recent interview at NYLA, he said that he still struggles with the inevitability of death. The last full-page picture in the book features a body lying supine on the floor, semi-obscured in a cloud of fog. I don’t know if Story/Time is so much a performance waiting to be a document as it is Jones waiting to be remembered. One of his stories describes the necessity of having “faith in one’s future self.” Books are usually published with the hope that they will influence the conversation in generations to come.
Why examine the influence of Cage and not Merce Cunningham, the choreographer who interpreted many of Cage’s ideas in movement? His name is mentioned only in passing. At one point Jones talks about going to the Cage/Cunningham loft (the two were lovers). After Cage shows everyone inside his monastic bedroom with its piles of neatly arranged rocks, he stops the tour outside a closed door. “This is Mercy’s room,” he said, perhaps mischievously deflecting attention away from their relationship.
The locked bedroom serves as a perfect illustration of Cunningham's figure in Story/Time: his sphere of influence remains out-of-sight. Jones talks about Cage’s Indeterminacy left and right, but never even mentions How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run (1965), in which Cunningham set his choreography to Cage’s stories read aloud. This might be the more obvious progenitor to Jones’s work. As Jones says, “Merce is too close” (he uses his first name here, while with Cage it’s always his last). Perhaps his anxiety about his tie to Cunningham prevents him from speaking directly about it.
Jones offers an honest consideration of his form, “this esoteric thing called modern dance.” He wavers between abstract principles and accessible narratives, but emphasizes the virtues of the latter. Even in his portrait of Cage, which serves as a eulogy of sorts, the composer comes across as being more human and ego-driven than his theories would let on. At the end of the book Jones gives us a brief anecdote about Cage’s most extravagant life expense: fresh-cut flowers, which he used to cover the cacti, succulents, and trees in his apartment. Cage would spend a hundred dollars in a single visit to the marketplace—and that was just on the tulips. He wanted his place to look “like Bolivia.” “I like to think they’re not interested in classical music there,” he’s remembered as saying.
The flowers bring us back to the most basic, feel-good pleasures of the senses. Cage’s tulips are like Jones’s jukebox. And though Jones might not be dancing anymore, he’s ready to tell you that he loved every hour spent in front of that pop music machine.
Story/Time: The Life of an Idea is available from Princeton University Press. To order, go to press.princeton.edu. For more information about Jones and his company, check out newyorklivearts.org.
MADISON MAINWARING is completing her PhD in French at Yale. She has contributed to The Believer, The Economist, and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications.