Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane Dance Company

Dance
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Editorial Review

Random acts of artistry
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, July 27, 2012

Bill T. Jones has long been modern dance’s resident provocateur. A self-described member of the counter culture, born into the civil rights era, Jones found himself at Woodstock at 17 and came of age as a theater major at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the 1970s. He became a postmodern experimentalist with his dance -- and life -- partner, Arnie Zane, who died at the dawn of the AIDS crisis in 1988. Together, they formed the company where Jones continues his work today.

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is among the powerhouse modern troupes in the United States. On Tuesday, the company -- no stranger to the Washington region -- makes its Wolf Trap debut with “Story/Time,” a new work that returns the 60-year-old Jones to the stage five years after he retired from performing.

This time, though, Jones will remain seated. He doesn’t dance. He reads. With a three-ring binder open on a table before him, he reads from a random selection of one-minute stories that he wrote over the past year-plus. His nine dancers swirl and leap, combine and scatter in pairings, small groups and solos, each section also one minute in length. Their abstract, moving landscape is further embellished by composer Ted Coffey’s score, which also contains randomness. Drawing on the revolutionary ideas of avant-garde composer John Cage, Jones’s latest work is part homage to Cagean theories that any sound, even silence or ambient noise, can be music and that artworks can be composed by chance rather than through artistic planning.

It’s a huge departure for Jones, who for years has dealt in works of a deeply personal, emotional or political nature. His button-pushing choreography has confronted such issues as race and racism, death and dying, justice and morality, the politics of war. He’s stripping away meaning, if not intellectuality.

“I’ve been a player in identity politics,” Jones recently said from New York, where his company is based. “The whole question of what happens onstage has been . . . a preoccupation to some of us: What it means to sit in an audience; what it means to be onstage; what are the issues that one is trying to cope with; what is beauty?”

For his new piece, Jones drew inspiration from Cage’s 1958 “Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music,” which consisted of 90 stories selected randomly, each read in exactly one minute no matter its length. The structure is Cage’s, but the approach is all Jones. “Story/Time” is exactly 70 minutes long -- and time ticks away on a digital clock hanging above the dance space. In two sections of the work, Jones uses a Cagean chance procedure to determine which dancers perform the choreography and where onstage they will dance. While Cage might have rolled the dice, flipped coins or used I Ching, Jones uses a random-number generating service at Random.org.

“Cage was actually trying to free himself from personal taste,” said Jones, who knew the composer. “That has been important for me as a person who has . . . worked in extremely emotional and expressionistic ways, to try to step back from taste and let an intellectual idea proceed.”

For aficionados of the Jones/Zane work, careful viewing will reveal fragments from the choreographers’ repertoire.

“The movement is a catalogue of maybe nearly 40 years of movement making,” Jones said. There are references to some of the earliest duets he and Zane created, as well as snippets of such works as “Fondly Do We Hope . . . ” and “Chapel/ Chapel” from the company’s recent years.

But Jones is quick to note that there is nothing retrospective about borrowing from his body of work. “The whole point,” he said, “is to make them new, to recontextualize them. It’s something that visual artists do all the time.

“I’m trying in some ways to clear my palate about all my assumptions about what theater, what dance, is.”