Bill T. Jones and his company have been in residence at the University of Virginia this week. Sunday there was a Virginia Film Festival showing of "A Good Man," the film on the creation of Jones' "Fondly Do We Hope/Fervently Do We Pray," which PBS will show tonight. Tonight in town the company performs "Serenade/The Proposition," with an original score that "draws from" Mozart's Requiem. These paid events bracket three free ones, two open rehearsals and a workshop performance of "Story/Time."
"Story/Time" is a 70-minute long dance during which Jones sits at a table stage center and reads 60-some one-minute stories as the dancing proceeds. The electronic score was composed and performed by a young UVA professor, Ted Coffey. The dance was inspired by John Cage, who was mentioned in a couple of the stories, and specifically by Cage's 90-minute work "Indeterminacy." Jones said he wanted to see what Cage knew back in the 50's "that I might have forgotten."
A company assistant used a computer program to determine which of the 100 (if memory serves) stories to use. Jones hopes to publish them all in book format. In one of the stories Jones describes writing while listening to Cage, but "losing Cage" as he did, and being bothered by it. When a woman later described her own difficulty in taking in both dance and story at once, he asked her if she remembered that story.
Before the performance, Jones conducted an exercise he'd done with school kids at one of the rehearsals, asking us to raise our hands after what we thought was a minute had passed. The concept of indeterminacy, and of how we bring our own meaning to our perceptions, seemed to be the point of the exercise as well as the dance.
There were three large digital clocks in back of and flanking the stage, and there may have been another at the back of the auditorium, as Jones would sometimes briefly pause, looking up, as he read. Besides the table and chair Jones used, on which were several green apples the dancers used eventually, the set consisted of a moveable scrim and a couch.
The stories, which Jones read well in his deep and resonant voice, sounded (with one exception) like diary entries, although he composed them for the piece. The exception was a violent story he referred to in a Q & A as "the melodrama," about a landlord who bursts in with his "goons," demanding payment. That story was repeated three times with slightly different choreography, and for the third time the actors (this was one of the few stories for which the movement clearly illustrated the story) were referred to by their actual first names. A company assistant used a computer program to determine which of the 100 (if I remember correctly) stories to use. Jones hopes to publish them all in book format.
One story included a line or two from the song "John Henry," which Jones sang in a beautiful voice. He did insert one story not chosen by the computer, a story that took place here in Charlottesville: "So we are pushing back against Cage." A couple of stories recounted encounters with homeless men on the street. A few (?) featured his grandmother or other family members. One or two recounted hearing political stories on the radio. Some had a sexual theme, including one that described a weird porn video. One featured Virgil Thomson and another told of dinner with Cage and Cunningham and a tour of their home by Cage, in which Cage showed them where he slept and where "Mercey" slept. Another was about seeing Glen Ligon's "Watch and Listen" retrospective at the Whitney. I can't remember the exact words, but it was clear that this duality, like Cage's indeterminacy, was at the heart of the dance.
Having seen little or no modern dance except for Cunningham in the past couple decades, I'm not qualified to judge the quality of the choreography or even describe it very well, but I found some of it moving, much of it striking. I was impressed with the dancers. In conversation with the school kids, Jones said that his associate artistic director, Janet Wong, is responsible for some of the choreography, as are the dancers. The printed program says the same. For two or three stories late in the dance, two dancers, a man and a woman, were naked. At the point strong lights shone into the audience from onstage, dimming the stage picture.
The score was largely abstract; Jones noted that Coffey was influenced by David Tudor. He also said that an entirely abstract score would, in light of work by Cage and Tudor the like, have seemed old-fashioned.
I was quite fascinated by Jones' personality as revealed in the film, rehearsals and discussions. He comes across as a very direct man, hard on himself and his associates (and willing to apologize when appropriate), but playful and essentially polite and respectful. He made a culture wars comment after the film that I found almost laughable, but I relate that only to say that by the end of the week I had developed a real respect and liking for him, and an interest in his work.
"Story/Time" has been developed In residency at a number of other schools as well, and at the Walker Arts Center, and I think Joes indicated that it's not yet finished, Has anyone else here seen it so far?
Bill T. Jones at the University of Virginia
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