In his long career, Bill T. Jones has gone from experimental downtown artist to two-time Tony winner. Bridging such different worlds makes for an uncomfortable perch, from which he must contend with purists who question his authenticity and Broadway operators who ignore his past 30 years in the arts.
Jones is not one to ignore his own discomfort. His new work, “Story/Time,” which the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed at Wolf Trap on Tuesday night, seems to be a way of reconciling his postmodern roots with his success as a showman.
Jones told the audience that “Story/Time” was a homage to John Cage, whom he dubbed a “20th-century music man.” Jones was honoring him as a word man, however: In 1958, Cage created a work called “Indeterminacy,” in which he sat alone onstage, reading aloud a series of one-minute stories he’d written. This is what inspired “Story/Time.”
In a program note, Jones writes that the piece is “an opportunity for me to return to the stage in a low-key, non-popular performance-art mode.” Channeling Cage’s eye for the quirkiness of daily life, Jones penned a sheaf of his own one-minute stories. Using the sort of random selection that Cage and his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, favored, he chose 70 and read them from behind a desk in his booming, velvety voice.
Unlike Cage, Jones was not alone: His nine dancers swirled around him, sometimes in a group, sometimes not, while composer Ted Coffey performed an electronic score. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design spotlighted Jones as a kind of rumpled deity, in a blinding white T-shirt and loose green pants. The dancers were bathed in a softer, moonlit glow — the mute demigods to Jones’s thundering Zeus.
Bjorn Amelan’s spare set design was little more than a few panels of suggestive architecture and some simple furniture, but it conjured worlds. All in all, this was one of the most provocative and stimulating dance events that safe, predictable Wolf Trap has hosted in recent years.
Even the weather felt perfect, with a cool breeze lending its own element of pleasure.
The subjects of Jones’s mini-narratives ranged from historical snippets (cocaine use among railway workers and its spread through rural black communities) to first-person accounts (ruminations on his garden in winter, with birds “fluffed and plumped against the cold”). A digital counter loomed over his head, tallying up the passing minutes, but Jones didn’t need it to emphasize the theme of time. That was in his stories, in the interesting, understated music — particularly in the girlish innocence of Blossom Dearie, singing a few lines of “They Say It’s Spring.” And in more nuanced ways, it was in the dancing.
The past, the seasons, memories of his parents and of his late partner, Zane: “Story/Time” wasn’t just a chance for Jones to get back into the spotlight. It was a way to review his life in manageable bits. It was an oral slideshow of wide-ranging experience, often tinged with unrest. He recalls Zane’s death and gives us a snapshot of his vibrant, reckless life. He tells us how sex workers taunted him on a trip overseas (meanwhile, his dancers arrange the panels into a window frame, and pose alluringly within it). He takes us to Cunningham’s apartment, where the venerable artist pantomimes a cat.
“What has never changed in your work over the years?” Jones remembers being asked by an audience member one time after a Kennedy Center performance. “Doubt,” he replied. “It burns . . . like . . . fire.”
Also unchanged was the loose-jointed, luxurious ease of his dancers. The stage was a field of play as they chased one another around, dropping and rolling. There were some agitated solos, occasional flashes of violence and casual virtuosic surprises — a leg thrown to the ear; a sailing, sustained turn.
If these were moments of heaven, by the end we seemed to be angling toward hell, with the stage in dark shadows. A dancer rolled slowly across it and smoke billowed out of his clothing, as if his flesh were smoldering.
“You live, you learn, and you forget it all,” Jones told us his father used to say.
But the choreographer had his own coda: “You live, you learn, you forget it all . . . and then you die.”
True story, indeed.