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Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

By Robert Johnson

Peak Performances at Montclair

The Alexander Kasser Theater
Montclair, NJ

January 21–29, 2012
Performance reviewed: Jan. 21


If Bill T. Jones were a poet, he would dedicate himself to the elegy. A passionate response to loss distinguishes this choreographer from the late John Cage, whose 1959 lecture Indeterminacy inspired Jones’ Story/Time.

 

In Story/Time, which received its premiere at Montclair State University, Jones follows Cage’s model, assembling a program of 70 stories (more or less) randomly selected and arranged in one-minute intervals. The method is the same, but Jones imposes his own emotional perspective, yielding wondrously original results.

 

While Cage and his partner, Merce Cunningham, both lived to old age, Jones lost his early collaborater and lover, Arnie Zane, to AIDS in 1988. So Story/Time includes no yarns about mushroom hunters cavalierly risking their all for an epicurean morsel. Death is not a joking matter for Jones, who sits solidly planted at a table center-stage while digital clocks tick off the seconds and dancers swirl around him.

 

The content of his stories is dramatic or humorous, and Jones savors each lingering memory mourning in advance the day everything will be washed away. He recalls his father telling him: “You live, and you learn. You die, and you forget it all.” Implicit in this tribute is a fresh grief. Surely not by accident, Story/Time’s premiere followed the Cunningham company’s dissolution on New Year’s Eve. Unlike Cunningham’s How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run, which incorporated Cage’s stories in 1965, Jones’ Story/Time is not so lighthearted.

 

While Jones’ tales represent a lifetime of accumulated wisdom, his memories and the process of transmitting them to others remain as slippery as the moment, early on, when Jennifer Nugent and LaMichael Leonard dodge past each other in a crouch reminiscent of a martial arts encounter. Throughout Story/Time, juicy dancing contrasts with stories raked together like dry autumn leaves.

 

 

Although time is an ineluctable slayer, Jones also breaks it into fragments and manages to reverse its natural progression. We may hear the first part of a story long after we have heard the ending; and in a piece about illegal hitch-hiking, Jones describes a moment of clairvoyance when he sensed a police car moments before it arrived.

 

Like fairy tales, Jones’ vignettes display humanity at its best and worst extremes. We hear of sexual abuse and torture, and of a sentimental campaign to protect migratory geese. The dancing follows suit. In an excerpt from “Blind Date,” the caring onstage community rushes to catch Talli Jackson every time he falls. At other moments, stylized humping accompanies a recurring tale about an evil landlord. Although the action rambles, it isn’t always random. Smoke pours from dancers as they roll across the stage, echoing a story about Jones’ mother throwing a fit. The episodic score, by Ted Coffey, may taunt us by obscuring Jones’ voice.

 

Jones is a theatrical smoothie, and these minute-long vignettes seem tailored to fit the attention span of today’s audience. Story/Time has challenges, too, however. As incidents go flying past, how many can we capture?

 

 

Photos by Paul B. Goode, courtesy NYLA. Top: Erick Montes, Jennifer Nugent, and Bill T. Jones. Bottom: LaMichael Leonard, Jr., I-Ling Liu, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Talli Jackson.