We tell stories. We express our emotions. Conventional wisdom calls that the representation of our humanity and, thus, the essence of art.
But art’s function is also to challenge conventional wisdom. Storytelling can be truth or deceit. Emotional manipulation is not a benign activity. The tradition of nonnarrative theater has existed in many parts of the world throughout its history for a reason.
Choreographer Bill T. Jones is a born storyteller and is dealing with it. On Saturday night, he sat at a desk in the center of the stage at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach and read stories.
His “Story/Time,” created for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, consists of 70 minutes of such stories (a minute each) from a growing collection of 190 that he has written about himself and his experiences.
Eight dancers occasionally (very occasionally) illustrated something Jones read, but mostly they just danced. Seated at a computer in front of the stage, composer Ted Coffey produced a vibrant electronic score and soundscape that also went its own interesting way.
First produced in 2012 as part of celebrations surrounding the centennial of John Cage’s birth but only now finding its way to Southern California, “Story/Time” is both a response to Cage’s “Indeterminacy” and homage to the Modernist abstraction of Cage’s dance collaborations with Merce Cunningham. At the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958, Cage read vignettes about his life and interests, especially music and art and Eastern thought. Each is momentarily revealing; many are extremely funny. Every text is as carefully constructed as a poem. Pianist David Tudor manned electronics that often drowned Cage out. A recording of this is a classic and has served as one of the most effective entry points into the avant-garde.
In 1965, “Indeterminacy” was used for Cunningham’s mischievous dance “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run,” with new stories, some surprisingly catty, added. For Cage and Cunningham, this was an avant-garde smoke screen. In truth, Cage’s stories assumed considerable poetic license. The composer then took imaginative pains to make the texts obscure. Loud music and distracting dance intruded. Cage and another performer read stories simultaneously, and each text had to last exactly 60 seconds, at points requiring laboriously slow or grotesquely fast reading.
Personally, Cage loved to tell stories. He loved to talk about himself. But he devoted himself to art that was meant to free us from our egos and predictable emotions as a way to open us to new experiences. This was a brilliant solution.
Jones came of age when, to be taken seriously in modern dance, he felt he had to adhere to the Cage-Cunningham sensibility, and he fell deeply under Cage’s spell. But as a gay African American who grew up in a culture of storytelling and rhythm, he never fully fit into a modern dance that did not embrace those things. He railed against the system that railed against the system. He needed to return to the past to both acknowledge who he was and to channel his anger against social injustice.
“Story/Time” is his confrontation. Jones’ stories are very much his, from his rural childhood to his cosmopolitan encounters in the American art world. At his best incantatory rather than cool, collected and whimsical, he struggles to make them fit into Cage’s format. He can contain but not disguise his rage.
Several basic Cage procedures are honored. Chance determines the choice and sequence of stories and dances and music, making each performance different. These ground Jones. But he does not give into indeterminacy whole-heartedly. He noted in a question-and-answer session afterward how pleased he was when coincidences of movement and story and narrative and music occurred. He has engineered a few himself.
Jones’ company was commanding, and the movement, with its wide range of dance associations (classical and popular, narrative and not), never became predictable. The openness of “Story/Time” has the further advantage of allowing Jones to use it as a vehicle to develop ideas for new dances. On Saturday, he remained silent a time or two during his minute slots. One of them was used to try out a bright hip-hop ensemble number.
Jones’ ego cannot, in the end, withstand Cage’s constraints. The choreographer bristles against the impersonal. In “Story/Time,” Jones is ever front and center. Physically, he dominated the center of the stage, whereas Cage sat on one side and shared the reading for the Cunningham dance. In “Story/Time,” a couch and chair are brought onstage, as though these stories were something derived from a therapy session, whereas Cage picked a bone with psychiatry (preferring Zen).
But by testing the limits of his own comfort zone, by beating his head against this, so to speak, Cage, Jones takes nothing for granted. Narrative must — as it here poignantly and stirringly does — earn its reason for being.