Context Notes: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
by Jedediah Wheeler
By chance, I was working for an artists’ management collective at Westbeth (NYC) in the seventies. Merce Cunningham’s studio was located down the hall. The building had been part of Bell Labs and its president used our offices. My job was to find performance opportunities for avant-garde artists such as Richard Foreman, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs and Mabou Mines. One artist in the collective already had a formidable performance career and I was told that he did not need my attention. His name was John Cage. John Cage was mushrooming worldwide on his own!
That I “met” him is my way of saying I did not know him, but acknowledging that I had had the privilege of being associated with him; however tangentially.
After meeting John Cage, I began to follow his work. And in the following I came to think more fully about “possibility” – the act of believing in the unexpected. For possibility to take root, opportunity had to exist. John Cage epitomized a fusion of opportunity and possibility in which accidents become creative stepping stones in making new work.
Contemporary performance in America is often held back by the lack of time, space and money to really create. In my career as a producer and artist manager, I had realized numerous works under less than optimum conditions. With that experience very present in my mind, I set out to fashion a new performing arts program at MSU. Not only would time, space and resources be available to all sorts of artists but they could work in an environment that championed creation without compromise.
I had my opportunity.
The first artist to make new work in The Alexander Kasser Theater was Bill T. Jones and the Bill T Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company who came to Montclair State University in 2005 to make Blind Date.
Bill T. Jones and his collaborators entered The Kasser with ideas on high alert.
Possibility filled the space!
The ideas that Bill explored at the beginning of the extended residencies
evolved considerably until Blind Date opened and, crucially, continued to evolve
from first public performance to the last which was uniquely two years later in
the place it began: The Kasser.
Since that first residency/workshop/premier, Peak Performances has served as a
home where artists do create without compromise. Our commitment to BTJ/AZ
blossomed even further with A Quarrelling Pair (2007), Story/Time (2012) and in
due time Analogy (June, 2015).
Inspired by John Cage’s Indeterminacy which consists of ninety stories to be
read aloud with or without musical accompaniment paced so that each story
takes one minute, Story/Time is wholly unique without being one of kind. Bill
reads sixty plus stories culled from his life experience set to musical and dance
And what a work it is!
The complexity of Bill’s transformation of Indeterminacy into Story/Time is
astonishing. Seventy plus dances created and then selected by a pre configured
computer program set to inspired personal stories no more than 60 seconds in
length, with a bold set, light design and sound score is jaw dropping. Most dance
shows are dependent on specificity not random selection.
Story/Time underscores what I believe to be Bill T Jones’ vision of what a
satisfying performance should be for the artist and the audience: a journey of
surprising moments that expand the personal experiences. Chance encounters
of the mind and body that reveal the unique human capacity to imagine.
The pleasure of seeing a show that sets the bar so high and works so well is one
reward. But to consider Story/Time as an extension of John Cage’s notion of
performance through chance is all the more fulfilling.