Bill T. Jones chuckled deeply as he considered the arc his latest work, Story/Time has taken since its inception.
Jones, 60, a celebrated choreographer, theater director and writer, said his original intention was to limit where he showed the work. He certainly didn’t think he would end up on a mini-tour, he said.
“It was small scale, intimate. It was going to be me alone on a small stage in front of a few select people,” said Jones during a recent interview. “I thought of presenting it in alternate spaces and small settings, but this is now a full-fledged production at Wolf Trap, of all places. But it holds up well because of the beauty.”
The production consists of 90 one-minute autobiographical segments. Jones described it as one-minute excerpts from 30 years of dance making, works from his dance company over the last 10 years and material that might have been done that day in class.
Each piece is accompanied by original music from composer Ted Coffey and the company’s signature modern dance. At the D.C. premiere of Story/Time, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will make its Wolf Trap debut. The production is in town for one night only, on the evening of Tuesday, July 31.
Contrary to what some critics and reviewers think the play tells them, Jones said his newest work isn’t his life story.
“I don’t know where that comes from that it’s autobiographical,” he said. “There are 173 stories which range from me reporting something someone told me, me remembering stories my mother’s mother told her, Persian, Sufi and Indian stories.”
“There’s a menu of stories organized by ‘chance procedure’ for dance. Some are personal stories, some are not. I do think one gets a sense of me on how the stories are presented, though.”
Jones, winner of two Tony awards and a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient, said he invites the community to come, enjoy the show, and not be afraid of what it experience.
“It’s a seductive, physical space that’s its own reward,” he said. “There is a cascade of images and words. Patrons shouldn’t make a choice. They can sit with eyes closed, or focus on the beauty of the stage. The dancers are beautiful and Ted Coffey is doing his own thing.”
“I would like people to make new connections to what they see and hear and take responsibility for what is happening on stage. So much is happening in random order that the brain rebels or embraces it. There’s no right way to view the work.”
He said he began focusing on this project after completing work on a play honoring Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, titled “Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray” and said he had been working on this project for years, dealing with it “very specifically, like a surgeon.”
Jones, who had just returned from a family reunion in Bunnell, Fla., said he finds Story/Time a very difficult piece to talk about. He acknowledged the impact of composer John Cage on this work as well as on his thoughts and perspectives as an artist.
“I’m very influenced by John Cage. He was very controversial, deeply involved in the act of composition. Cage, a composer, organized all of his thoughts by a system not about feelings but of time, word play, chance procedure and used those to decide what follows what. He didn’t want to decide any architecture outside of the work.”
In Berlin, Jones explained, Cage sat alone on a stage and read 90 stories in 90 minutes. Cage, he said, was fascinated with concept of time remembered or imagined. And along with that idea, is always that of expectation “which is an issue for those of us who consider themselves progressive artists,” Jones said.
“That made it intriguing to me.”
The play is similar in several respects to Cage’s “Indeterminacy,” a series of one-minute long stories first performed in 1958, and performed differently every time it was presented.
Jones praised his companion Bjorn Amelan for his creativity and set design, Robert Wierzel for “the fantastic lighting of the production,” Liz Trent for the costumes and Janet Wong, an honest and elegant woman he said makes dance movements that increase the facility of the dancers. Jones, a Kennedy Center honoree, laughed long and hard when asked about what makes him tick.
“A good dose of insanity,” he said. “I have demons. I’m obsessed with failing my parents, lover, companion. And a good dose of love. As a small boy I would make a picture of someone with open arms. Ultimately, I want to love and have space to love.”
Even as he strives for excellence, Jones said, he has been enmeshed in the struggle between art and religion, and like other artists jousts with issues such as the quest for validation, not selling one’s soul and producing work that is meaningful on a number of levels.
Art making is ideas as well as a physical and spiritual pursuit.
“It’s about being alive,” he said.
An earlier interview captures the essence of what informs Jones’ work.
“[To] take what you do and try to make something that may have value in the culture and not lose your pride doing it. That’s one thing commercial theater is,” he said. “Belief that an artist can be a popular artist and still be doing something that will hit people in all the proper places.”
Every work he’s produced, he looks at why he did it, why it succeeded or failed and what good may have come from the project.
While he doesn’t go out of his way seeking validation, Jones said, winning the MacArthur Award was a particularly pleasurable stamp of approval.
“I was in a rehearsal in Boston at the Majestic Theatre on a Saturday morning,” he recalled. “A trustee called and said, ‘don’t say anything but you’re getting a prize.’ I thought it was a joke. I thought my work was controversial, not mature enough. I jumped up and down with my companion and we began thinking about ways to spend the money.”
“It’s a big time validation. That’s probably the most important effect of the award.”