Bill T. Jones’ Cough

At the very start of his show in MemAud two weeks ago, Bill T. Jones apologized for his cough. He would be onstage for the duration of the 70-minute show, recounting 70 one-minute-ish stories from a small table center stage, and told us he hoped he wouldn’t have to stop for water breaks too often. Something about this confession thrilled me.

Jones serves as both choreographer and narrator for Story/Time #40, taking a literally central position but finding himself surrounded (and dwarfed) by his company of dancers. Before seeing it I didn’t know much about Bill T. Jones (and really don’t know much, frankly, about dance), but from what I have read, the piece contains many elements of the work Jones has earned a reputation for creating. After over 30 years of dancing and choreographing, what stands out (among Tonys, MacArthur Genius Awards, and more) are naked dancers, stunningly intimate duets, and a certain high-camp buzz.

Novel, however, is Jones’ presence onstage. While he rose to fame as a dancer, alongside his late dance partner and lover Arnie Zane in the 1980s, he had for some time been known only as a choreographer and artistic director, not a performer, until Story/Time premiered a couple years ago. The piece is at once a narrated dance, and a danced series of stories.

Story/Time takes as its prompt John Cage’s Indeterminacy, a musical piece (and, later, album) from the 1950s. In the original piece Cage recites 90 one-minute stories in one room while a pianist improvises 90 one-minute songs in another – without hearing each other’s work, the two find their text and music overlaid. The result is apparently quite exciting and is also characteristic of the fancy, modernist, Avant Garde stuff that Jones feels he’s never quite been part of, as a black, gay male with a certain politicized flamboyance to him.

And so Bill T. Jones’ take on Cage is anything but minimalist. It doesn’t strive for sleekness or mystery, but instead, it’s quite personable, and personal: it’s soupy, and it feels capital-L Live. It’s also friendly. The pairing of narrative with dance gives the text a certain unavoidable explanatory function, and I did find myself searching for meaning in the voice when I couldn’t find any in the movement. There is, however, no one-to-one connection between the two components. the 70 stories told on any given night are taken from a repertoire of 170, according to a logic known only to Jones and his company, and the movement sequences are selected and rearranged on the day of each performance. Chance and adaptability are at the heart of Jones’ project, but so is Jones himself.

When Jones and his voice entered the room, I felt taken care of, the same way I do when I hear the narration in a nature documentary, the pre-screening introduction to a foreign film, or the film noir hero speaking into his tape recorder. I treasure a good voiceover. I like being told what to watch for. And so, when the show was about to start, and the handsome Jones appeared on stage, took a bow in a thin white shirt, and mentioned his cough, I already liked him. He then asked us to wait a minute, in silence, and raise our hand when we thought it was up. 1 mississippi… 2 mississippi… Hands began springing up. By the time I hit my 30th internal mississippi, almost everyone’s hands were up. Nervously, I kept counting.

“Time,” Jones said. He sat down and began to speak. A large timer began to run, counting up from 00:00. From that mississippi on, Jones’ voiceover continued to impress and captivate me. Describing events that he has either witnessed or been told about, Jones hypnotizes his audience, sometimes to his disadvantage; I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to zoning out a few times.

Some of his stories receive clear attribution (“My mother told me that in her youth…”) while others spring out of the ether sans author (“A woman was having trouble paying her rent…”). Some are funny (the one where his mother doesn’t recognize Anjelica Huston) and others sad (the one about his father’s funeral) and others are mundane but profound (fist bumping with a homeless man in Washington, D.C.) and others are pretty boring. As the piece progresses the sturdy connections between text, music, and movement begin to unravel. The timer floated up into the rafters of MemAud, and a distant rumble of the soundtrack grew louder, drowning out Jones’ voice.

All I was waiting for, for 70 minutes, was a one-minute segment about Jones’ lover Arnie Zane, and his death from AIDS. In that, there’s some sort of challenge to the piece’s autobiographical nature: the one thing I knew about Bill T. Jones was that he had lost a partner to AIDS, and, to be frank, it’s all I wanted to hear about. This has more to do with me than with Jones. The moment that the soundscape grew loud enough to overpower Jones’ narration coincided with two male dancers’ movement across the stage. My mind split: at one level, this was the part about AIDS, about (queer) loss, and exactly what I came to see, and I let tears well in my eyes; on another level, this was so not what I came to see, and I was disappointed, because the words “AIDS” or “Arnie” had still not been pronounced.

My own projections rounded out the piece, inserted Zane where he was (perhaps) not welcome. I couldn’t help but mentally place a younger Jones and Zane (two ghosts at a barre, stretching in tandem, and deeply in love) among the dancers who circled him, even as Jones told stories about everything but Zane: his mom, his circle of (glamorous) friends, his current lover, Bjorn Amelan. What’s thrilling, at least to me, is the possibility that on a different night, with a different arrangement of the text (at Story/Time #35, 36, 37, 38, or 39, for instance, in November 2014) we might have heard about Zane, or might not have. Jones’ piece is autobiographical, sure, but it’s not purely confessional, nor does it pretend to be stream-of-consciousness. It’s still measured, the way Cage would have wanted. The improv (the “live”) here is not in the text of each story, but in what those stories get thrown up against (which movement sequence it narrates, which sound or lighting effect it competes with, which delusion from a queer audience member it satisfies or denies).

The rhythm of the piece, then, invites these sorts of projections, bringing the audience, too, into the piece as collaborators the way Cage would have liked. But the star is, undoubtedly, the wiry and wise Bill T. Jones himself, the man who – even with a nasty cough – we all came to see in the first place.

Photos by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of Stanford Live

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