Every dance tells its own story, usually without words. In “Story/Time,” however, Bill T. Jones sits in the spotlight and tells one-minute stories while nine dancers from his company swirl around him.
The piece, which debuted at Montclair State University in 2012, takes its inspiration from John Cage's 1958 “Indeterminacy” and Cage's subsequent 1965 collaboration with Merce Cunningham, “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run.” Jones has some 170 stories about everything from the death of his partner, Arnie Zane, in 1988 to Cunningham's pantomiming of a cat. For each performance, 70 of these narratives are selected at random for Jones to read against choreography drawn from about 105 minutes of his work.
At the Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday, Jones, sitting at a table with a mike, a glass of water, and some green apples, recalled having a low-fat lunch with Virgil Thomson in New York, holding a vivid green hummingbird in his hand in New Mexico, studying sex workers in Amsterdam, watching Zane photograph Louise Nevelson, listening to a conversation between his mother and Anjelica Huston. A digital clock at the rear counted off the first 13 stories, disappeared, then resurfaced at the 66-minute mark. Transparent white scrims were moved about to create cubical spaces; dancers lounged on a black sofa. At one point Jones got up and walked off, leaving the dancers on their own. When he returned, there was an interval of deafening sound that all but drowned out his voice. Then steam enveloped the stage, and eventually the audience, as the dancers rolled about, some of them naked.
Jones is not a MacArthur Fellow, a Kennedy Center honoree, and a two-time Tony Award winner for nothing. At the outset, his stories had too much personal feeling and quirky detail for his dancers’ generic, dimly lit movement. They preened and posed during the opening tale of Jones meeting friends for lunch; they offered insight into the secret life of rental-car employees; a wrestling match accompanied Jones's recollection of reading Cage on a mesa while watching the first sunset of 2012. Once the steam dissipated, however, and the back-wall blinds were raised to reveal the harbor, the dancers started to make up an enticing story of their own, a group work about unity and diversity. By the end, they had almost stolen Jones's spotlight.