Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane Dance Company’s Story/Time is a kind of spoken dance piece inspired by John Cage: 70 one-minute stories “interrupted by a chance musical score.” The piece takes its form from Cage’s Indeterminacy: every night a stage manager “spins” numbers via random.org to determine which 70 of the more than 150 stories will be read, resulting in a different arrangement of text, movement, and music at each performance.
In its current iteration at New York Live Arts, the company is collaborating with a number of outside guests who will share their own stories, including actress Kathleen Chalfant, choreographer Lois Welk, and artist Theaster Gates (alongside his group the Black Monks of Mississippi). In a move reminiscent of Cage and Cunningham, who collaborated on material for a single piece without full knowledge of what the other was preparing, I spoke with Bill T. Jones and Theaster Gates separately last week about their upcoming performance, community, presence, and the Black male body.
For Theaster Gates, Story/Time is an exercise in vulnerability. Gates described himself to me as “twelve different manifestations of what it means to be self and group.” Best known for his urban planning roots and social practice projects in Chicago, he emphasized that for him, what is most important about performance is that “nobody can stand in for me”:
There are moments where there’s a singular engagement that’s very exciting. As much as I think about myself in relationship to the collective and the necessary structures of what makes art practice happens in various ways, I also think a lot about my personal intellectual investment in varying ways — not only in performance and also in other parts of my artistic practice. There are times when I’m the only one I can lean on for a certain type of creative impetus.
For Bill T. Jones, the work is less about self-reliance that it is about how to share his own body. Now retired as a dancer, Jones stated:
It’s about a community: a dance company. There are others who are actually my arms and legs. When I’m fantasizing about a new work, it’s not about me doing it, it’s about individuals in a community. […] The company is the world as we want to live in it, not as the world may be. But a social vision exists in a larger context. And we have to be aware of that.
When asked about the particular weight of presenting the Black male body on stage in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, and the ongoing devaluation of the Black male body throughout the United States, Bill T. Jones responded:
My company has a tradition of a circle. It’s non-hierarchical. We put all of our energy into that circle: the symbolic circle of New York Live Arts. I’m a black man. I’m a black man who is leading and who is part of that. All of my pain, all of the things that outrage me, they have to find a place symbolically in the place that is that circle. And that’s how I deal with it. The world is always changing, and I have to be an agent of change. All of those tragedies are the discourse: they are the time that we as a culture are living through. How do I remain true to myself?
Theaster Gates highlighted the body as currency, particularly in relation to Jones’s own history:
The thing that I’m most excited about with Bill T. is he has the capacity to have these moments of transcendence where the subjectivity is neither black nor male necessarily. There’s a way in which the beauty of his practice is that it’s trying to complicate in all of these ways not only what it means to be a black male dancer but also all of these other topics: what does it mean to be America, what does it mean to be a citizen, what does it mean to be generous. What I love about the piece is that he’s always cognizant of both dance as a form and other powers at play that one has to consider living in the United States. The way the thing gets elevated is our shared belief that speaking truth to power is important, and the ways in which creative artists speak truth to power can be within a form, or can be within an expanded form. It could be dance, it could be visual art, or it could expand beyond that. That is the point where it gets exciting for me. There was a time where Muhammed Ali’s body was on stage, and there were moments where he would intentionally withdraw his body from conscription, from the possibility of war. Those withdrawals, those resignations are also exciting for me. In a way, you recognize that the black body has currency. By putting the black body on stage for 30 years, you build currency, and then you can choose to either give it or withdraw it. […] I have my ways of being vulnerable that are from a very specific set of traditions, and I’m excited to make that vulnerability public. My excitement about engagement with Bill has much more to do with a common understanding of the power inside our bodies. If Bill can now choose now to dance and be on stage at a desk and be as powerful, I think he understands something much bigger than dance as an imperative.
As for Jones, that larger imperative may well be to unpack Cage’s legacy not just as an individual, but as a symbol:
John Cage was supposed to be above reproach because he was everything that an avant garde, innovative artist was supposed to be. He was free of everything. For a while I thought that was the club I was in, or that I wanted to be in. But something about the specificities of it didn’t sit well with me. So now at this point I’m taking from it what I can. There’s a kind of critique of tradition — the New York School — I’m trying to find a relationship to it by engaging it in a bold poker face. It’s for me to pretend to be a neutral personality, like John Cage could be. If I take that stance, something interesting starts to happen when the audience starts to consider what my stories are. Somehow the world understands him in a way that it cannot understand me.
As a viewer of the “unadulterated” version of Story/Time (Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane Dance Company without any special guests), I will say that the piece works best in the moments where the structure falls away. My evening began with Jones offering the audience a simple exercise: “on the count of three, I’ll say ‘go.’ Raise your hand when you think a minute has passed.” As expected, the exercise is not so much about accuracy as it is about feeling: a minute is not so much a measurement as it is an idea. So too with the performance’s other forms: a story is not a sentence as much as it is a movement phrase; music is a kind of responsive math. A collaboration is not so much working together as it is a commitment to a presentation of simultaneous values: a non-neutrality that we hope can share space.
Story/Time runs at New York Live Arts (219 W 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through Saturday, November 15. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will appear together with The Black Monks of Mississippi on the final evening, at 7:30pm.