John Cage, best known for his chance-related compositions, is the inspiration behind "Story/Time", a new work by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performing in Berkeley on Thursday and Friday this week. Photo: Paul B. Goode

On Friday and Saturday, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will present “Story/Time” at Zellerbach Hall courtesy of Cal Performances. Lou Fancher previews the show with the company’s Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong, and, below, sits down with Jones himself to talk about the new project and the impact it is having on his life’s work

When the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company catapults onto the stage at Zellerbach Hall on February 24 and 25, even the dancers won’t know exactly what will happen.

Just a few hours before the 8:00 pm curtain, they will have lined the backstage hallway, learning the sequence spewed out by and refined under the watchful eye of Bill T. Jones and his Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong.

“We use Random to spin the material to determine which story goes where and what dancer does which part,” Wong explains, in a 45-minute phone interview a week before opening night. “Everyone has a chart: sometimes it’s brilliant and sometimes it’s horrible.”

Her evaluations are hardly begin to reflect Wong’s high standards and intense commitment to Jones, with whom she has worked for decades.

“The reason Bill wanted to do this piece is that John Cage is a mentor,” she says, citing the inspiration for the new work.

John Cage, American avant-garde composer and a pivotal figure in the dance world through his collaborations with choreographer Merce Cunningham, is best known for his chance-related compositions. His ambitious unraveling of instrumentation, performance and silence itself has caused a seismic shift for dancemakers, musicians, writers and visual artists from the 1950s to today.

This year, just when the world is mourning the end of the Cunningham Company, Bill T. Jones has stepped in as an improbable successor. Story/Time weaves a spontaneous tapestry of non-stop, physical creation alongside 70 one-minute-or-less stories performed and written primarily by Jones.

“There are a couple of stories from dancers each night, and you may even hear text from the Bible,” Wong says, “but Bill wanted to write narrative that comes from the personal instead of a text.”

"Story/Time"’s narrative-to-movement relationship is dissociative, an unusual direction for Jones. Photo: John B. Goode

Unlike most of Jones’ choreography, which starts in the studio with the simple honesty of bodies in motion or at rest, Story/Time began in front of cameras, with lighting and furniture. The work was gradually tied down to accommodate the technical elements, until December, when the company returned to rehearsals.

“We said, ‘Let’s throw all the work away, go back and shake up the material—’ and it was wonderful!” Wong exclaims.

Far from rattling the company, the leap-before-you-look approach triggered the dancers’ confidence and taught new lessons in the dramatic potential of the material.

“ is constantly revealing things to us,” Wong says, noting that transitions, beginnings, and endings achieve unpredictable significance in the different sequences.

Story/Time’s narrative-to-movement relationship is dissociative; an unusual and unlikely direction for Jones, who’s often assigned the role of emotional, political expressionist first, with masterful physicality arising from the “message”.

“We were trying to let go of meaning, not hold onto the narrative,” Wong says, “so sometimes you see a man onstage and you hear a story about a man, but that is entirely by chance.”

In a podcast on the Cal Performance website, Jones said he was trying, as a black man, to find his way through the chaos of the universe by tethering himself to it while imposing a strict form upon it. The results, as Berkeley audiences are sure to discover, may lead to more questions than answers. But then, that would lead to more wonderful dances by Jones, and who could object to that?

Bill T. Jones: Striving for balance, telling collaborative stories

Bill T. Jones: his new work, "Story/Time", makes him "light, happy". Photo: courtesy of Bill T. Jones

How has this project altered or enriched your experience as an artist?
The conceptual framework given to us by John Cage offers a kind of freedom from self, which is ironic, because many of the stories are written from the vantage of “I”. The one-minute problem [Jones has given himself a 60-second parameter for each story] means the story has to be trimmed down.

It frees me from concern about finding meaning. The meaning is changing all the time, which is the way it works in life anyway. It’s a comfort in the sense that there’s permission to include anything, but there is provocation in how it is held in a very strict structure.

The random element means it promises to stay fresh, which is very good for a middle-age artist. I stay alert and continually confront my tastes. I have to fight for honesty and authenticity.

Has it impacted your experience as a black man?
I don’t want to answer that because anything I say will become the thing people want to talk about. I don’t think you have a way of knowing the color of the person telling the story. You’re right, race is very, very important to me. There’s a mosaic presented and it’s more complicated than race. My point of departure, at this time in history, and John Cage’s point of departure [in the 1950s] are more interesting to contrast.

What role do fiction and non-fiction play in this and the rest of your work?
I come from storytellers, but the distinction is blurred, isn’t it? My mother and father were great storytellers, but even in their most fanciful forms, I thought they were talking to me about truths. My whole career has been expressionistic in that way. Banal things can become a story.

The line between [fiction and non-fiction] is blurred because ultimately, the goal is poetic. In Story/Time’s immense outpouring of information you become a major collaborator. You can only take in so much, so I say people should enjoy themselves enjoying the performance.

Jones recounted an experience with an audience member who, commenting on a section where noise literally obliterates the sound of Jones’ voice reading the text of a story, heard only the words “Coconut Cake”. Like sun breaking through the clouds, the words reminded the woman of her southern roots and “brought her back into the performance.”

Is there a correlation between Cage’s gravitation to chance methodologies and your decision to explore this form at this time in your career?
When I retired from dancing six years ago, I thought I was fine with that. Gradually, [I discovered] I wanted to get back on stage and I was negotiating with myself about making something not high-impact on my knees and my back. I thought it was just going to be singing and acting. At the same time, I had a dilemma about what to make for my company.

This project really took off because writing these stories was so wonderful. I was thinking of this as a challenge to high modernism, a club I never felt I was a member of, until people told me that that club never existed. It’s revealing that I have made a kind of Straw Man out of John Cage.

What have you been tested by in the last year?
Trying to maintain the balance of my new position as Executive Artistic Director of New York Live Arts, a merger of Dance Theater Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Being an advocate for my own work and for the dance center. The merger of these two things was enormous and combined with work for Broadway and for the company….

What has given you the most joy?
Story/Time. It’s good to be back on stage and doing this thing every night that I don’t know how it’s going to change. It makes me light, happy. Aware of potential.

“Story/Time” by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is at Zellerbach Hall on February 24 and 25 at 8:00 pm. For more information and tickets visit Cal Performances.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.