In Bill T. Jones’ newest work, Story/Time, the MacArthur “Genius” and Tony Award–winning choreographer takes inspiration from John Cage’s 1959 work Indeterminacy, sharing a series of personal musings, anecdotes, and poetic reflections in a cascade of one-minute stories that are organized by chance and punctuated by dance and music. Co-commissioned by the Walker, the work sees its world premiere January 21 at Peak Performances in New Jersey before coming to Minneapolis in February. In homage to Jones and to Cage, we mimic the format of the performance by offering a series of reflections in Jones’ own words from a recent conversation with Philip Bither, William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts.
On the Origins of Story/Time
Bill T. Jones the performer was saying, “What about me?” I had retired from dancing five years ago. I say I only dance when I’m happy, which means I dance in my living room, I dance for friends, or whenever I feel it. But then I had this desire to get back on stage and do something that I felt my knees and my ankles and my back would allow me to do and not have to go through every day being in a dance company. So storytelling and singing are very important to me, and I thought that’s what I would do: make a program of telling stories in places that I feel comfortable in, like the Walker. And then something happens. There is this hungry child, which is called a dance company. And the child has an appetite, always: “What’s new?”
The Artistic Fathers: John Cage and Merce Cunningham
Story/Time is an homage to both John Cage and Merce Cunningham. I loved them both for what they represent—they are ideas that I cherish. They are badass artist types who were able to do something that maybe I’m not able to do. They could thumb their nose at the world and its expectations. At least they did at a certain point, and they did something that was strong. Now, does it have legs, their idea? Is the idea of indeterminacy referencing the role of chance in the creation of art kind of dead in the water in a world where it’s constantly all about spin, all about who has the biggest pocketbook, celebrity culture, hundreds of channels?
And [am I] a man who is angry at his father, if they are my fathers? “You never understood me. You never cared about me. Now I’m left with this legacy, and I am going to talk to you through your ideas. I’m the one still here now. You are now a collection of ideas and notions that are in places like the Walker’s archives and so on. But I am up here, right now, in the moment.” That’s what it feels like with them right now. A strange kind of a father-son relationship, trying to understand “What did you leave me?” Both of those great men have left the stage on one level, but they have not left our minds and our hearts. That’s what Story/Time means for me.
Taking Inspiration from Cage’s Indeterminacy
I have a beautiful little cabin out in the middle of the mesa in New Mexico, and that’s my retreat. I have my tapes and I listen to John Cage, and it’s comforting, his voice. One day, when listening to him, I began to try to copy out something that he took and manipulated. And I’m trying just by listening, stopping, starting, and listening, just as an exercise. Then I decided, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what a minute story feels like to me. And I began to write them. And of course, they were all about the problem of wrestling with Cage. And then, five hours have gone by and I’ve done I don’t know how many of them. And the next day I started doing them again. That’s how it started. It is an ongoing introspection, but not as you would do in therapy. It’s got to result in a thing. It has to be crafted. The experiences that happened to me have to have a resonance as true as John Cage reporting a Taoist story of two monks walking in the road who encounter a woman—a non sequitur, without being too poetic, that you look at later and realize it’s talking about many things. That’s how these stories work. I’ve already written 130 of them, and I’m still writing them, which is what he did, literally, for years and years. It’s a wonderful process.
An Evolving Relationship with the Audience
Being an artist who is rapidly approaching his 40th year as a maker, I find there are questions that never go away: “Why do I do what I do? Who am I doing it for? What about the audience?” With Story/Time, it’s those questions, meeting Cage’s mid-20th-century sense of—I think [it’s] a kind of alienation, actually, that says, “I’m not going to pander to what you like. I’m going to do something that is driven by an intellectual set of questions.” And we’re off. Now, I’m having a lot of fun with it [but] it’s scary watching something, as [Cage] says, “get your taste out of the way.” That’s rough going. You think, “Will people like it? What is the goal? Is my goal to be liked?” We’re still fighting that battle about audience and what they want.
Modern Art and Alienation
Alienation is, I think, the lifeblood of Modernism. You’ve got to have an alienated, distant stance from the world. The Surrealists, they wanted to shuck the middle classes, right? Artists had some sort of a superior knowledge, and they had to go through all sorts of indignities to make that part of the discourse. With a lot of the work, if it’s obtuse or if it’s cynical or the critique—artists critiquing the world—these artists are angry as hell. They want to make a better world? Is that why they’re talking about the subjugation of women, or they’re talking about the chicanery or mendacity of the popular media? Is that why they’re doing it? Or do they just want to say, “I want you to know I’m smarter than you are. I can see how things work.” Is it about social change, the Modernist project? Was Picasso exploring planar geometry in his paintings and taking apart the face because it’s good for us to look closer? I don’t think they thought about it. Some of us had to think about it because we had voices and our people before us had not had voices. And we were also speaking, and we weren’t sure that anyone really, first of all, could even understand our voices or even gave a damn. So you had to assert your voice, and it had to have a moral authority, right? Problematic, isn’t it? Because then, it’s art as propaganda.
Self Examination: On Race, Class, and Making Art
“Bill T. Jones, what do you make of the fact that you have been able to make a career doing this esoteric thing called modern dance?” And a career means that you’re able to feed yourself. And a career means that you will be able to retire someday. And you will not end up on the state, like many people in your family have. So—“You’ve got to play this thing, boy. You’ve got to understand how to talk and walk and seduce and do everything you can so that you build up your capital.” That’s the other voice that you don’t have usually in artistic discussions. And I think it’s specific to race and class, those things. So I’ve never been free in that way [of refusing to compromise]. I’ve been pretty free. I’ve done things designed to freak people out, or what have you. But then as time has gone on and more is invested, I began to think, “Well, what is the social contract of this artist and this society? When you stand up there, why are they letting you stand up there?” They are letting you.
Now, that’s perception—because I’m also the person who said, “Look, you young folks, you have as much freedom as you’re willing to fight for. You have as much freedom as you’re willing to shake a tail feather for. You have as much freedom as—and then fill in the blank.” This idea of freedom is in Story/Time. Cage is getting at something that I think is really amazing about the chaos of existence, the space/time continuum. Artists recognize it; however, it behooves the artist to have an intellectually imposed structure on such chaos. And that’s what I’m exploring right now in Story/Time.
Helping to Form a New Arts Institution
With New York Live Arts [founded in 2010 as a merger of Dance Theater Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company], what I’d like to have my tenure [as executive artistic director] be about is expanding the cultural footprint. We don’t even use dance in the title. So what are we talking about when we say progressive movement practice—where are its boundaries, who is not in the fold? What do we have to say about the continuity of what we call modern dance or contemporary performance movement: Is it about [its history going back to] Judson Church, or is it about an attitude, a relationship to the status quo? What about works that were so decried in their time? Can we get those works? Let’s have our audience come look at them and really consider what our boundaries and our prejudices are, what our assumptions are. New York Live Arts only has 184 seats. So it’s not about masses of people getting there.
But there should be a major weight—cultural weight, the intellectual weight, with the help of the Internet—given to what happens in contemporary performance movement practice. We’re trying to make a place where it’s about the participation in the world of ideas. I’m an architect of it—I am not the sole guide. I’m waiting for the young genius to come along and tell me what the next big thing is and what is the relevance of this art form that so many of us have given our lives to. It’s a young man’s work, but the old have got to put the shoulder so the young step on it.
Playing It Both Ways on Broadway
They’re big on storytelling [on Broadway]. You’ve got to have a protagonist. He’s got to have a desire, and the whole show has got to be about him getting his desire. Things can’t just exist as they do for John Cage, which is why I love him. I thought what was innovative in Fela! was that it did not put you through those fake scenes in a person’s inner life. You’re just going to see the man, and the music is music. Is it anti-intellectual or is it pre-intellectual?
I think commercial theater producers know something about reality. For me, being middleaged—reality is literally hitting you in the face daily. The majority of people are tired, particularly when they put down $100 to go to the theater. “Do me,” they say. “Do me.” Is this in the wake of television? I don’t know. The reality is, “What are you, artist Bill T. Jones, going to do with that reality?” So I can push them around and force them, but then the questions are, “Do you want to make money? Why are you in this theater? Why are you in this form?” Because most of them say they’re here [on Broadway] because they want an experience that’s going to be like an amusement park. They’re telling you they want that. Are you so smart you’re going to seduce them into another way of thinking? I am arrogant enough to think I’m still trying to do that.
My producers on the piece I’m doing right now [based on Gordon Parks’ 1972 Blaxploitation film Superfly, with music by Curtis Mayfield, and coproduced by Jay-Z] appreciated Fela! They said, “That was a good transitional work for you [laughs] and now you’re going to get serious, and you’re going to really understand how to make a musical.” Fela! did not recoup its money. It’s early, maybe it will, but that was a brave thing that producer did, Stephen Hendel, bless him. He wanted to make a work of art, something that no one had ever seen on Broadway. But what’s still running now? It’s other musicals that everyone, even the critics, were [calling] run-of-the-mill—but the public is coming again and again and again.
This is what I’m learning about myself: There’s the ambitious son of a bitch that I am, and this one that actually thinks he’s smart enough that maybe he could have it both ways. Stay tuned. Let’s see how it flies.
Here’s video of the full interview: