Letter from a Danceaturg – No. 6 – January 22, 2012 – Story/Time World Premiere
Dear Lori: Happy New Year to you and everybody who reads this. It’s good to be back.
In the spirit of Bill T. Jones’ Story/Time let me begin by telling you that I arrived home last night from the Kasser Theater World Premiere at 9:34 p.m. – couldn’t stay for the Champagne – I really wanted to – and – true disclosure, I promised Bob Bursey before the show that I would stick around – but was too wired, my head was buzzing – and then, it took me until somewhere between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. to fall asleep, and is now 5:56 a.m., and I’ve had two cups of coffee, and here I am about to try to stabilize my jittery thoughts.
Toward the end of the piece, Bill was telling a story about sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room reading an article in Art in America about the Glenn Ligon America show/retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City. My first “flash” thought was – “I went to that show last spring!…It was fabulous…unlike anything I had ever seen before…” and my second “flash” thought was to something Bill had told Felicia R. Lee in The New York Times interview last Wednesday, January 18, that “he has long admired [John] Cage and liked his insistence in Indeterminacy that audiences bring their own meaning to the work and discover the unity between sounds and stories.” And indeed – I had, at that very moment, it was about 48 minutes into the 70 minute work – brought my very own visual memories of the half-obliterated-jargon-phrased canvases of Glenn Ligon set against the pale walls of the Whitney galleries, and his glaring neon-reversed constructions, and his fake/authentic handbills mimicking vintage Wanted posters seeking escaped slaves. And, after I had finished this thought and its accompanying images in the Kasser Theater last night at about 8:53 or thereabouts, I then realized that for about thirty seconds I had stopped paying attention to what Bill was saying (sitting there, as he put it, “in the middle of the playing area,” dressed in a white, long-sleeved shirt, behind a simple desk with a pinpoint reading lamp, text in plain sight, feet planted firmly on the floor])and that I had also drifted away from following the sinuous movements of the dancers.
I had responded to what John Cage and Bill T. Jones had hoped for, and then, as a result, I had “missed” some of the piece – half the time of one story out of seventy…
Or had I?
One more citation from John Cage to help crystallize the context: In an essay called “Grace and Clarity” published in Dance Observer [now there’s a title I can relate to!] in 1944, he wrote, “…a dance, a poem, a piece of music (any of the time arts) occupies a length of time, and the manner in which this length of time is divided…is the work’s very life- structure.” — “any of the time arts” — that concept is crucial here, and helps unlock some of the purported mystery of Story/Time. For me, and — judging from the relaxed, good-humored, attentive vibe in Kasser Theater — I think for most of the people in the audience last night, the piece was far from opaque. Its “life-structure” was laid out for all to see and hear and feel. In this respect I wholly agree with Jed Wheeler’s observation: “[Bill T. Jones] does not doubt his audience.”
The collaboration of John Cage [words], Merce Cunningham [movement], and David Tudor [music] resulted in staged works often, but not always, “governed by chance procedure.” Perusing Bill’s Director’s Note, which he reminded the audience in brief pre-show remarks to be sure to read – I saw his homage to these Modernist masters and heard the question of his own situation within that tradition. A characteristic of Modernism that we should bear in mind when watching Story/Time is that those iconoclasts could not have achieved their at-times-anarchistic realignments of space, time, sound and narrative without a sense of the history that preceded them. In order to be a Cubist you needed to paint your way through Impressionism. In order to be a Dada novelist you needed to de-construct your way through Social Realism. In order to be atonal you needed to find and transcend the through-line of melody.
In that regard, surely it is no “accident” (in the ironic sense) that one of the major textual motifs of Story/Time is the tale of Noah and the Flood. If my ears did not deceive me, it is the only excerpt from the Bible that BTJ cites in the entire 70 minutes. Quite timely, in that 2011 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of The King James Bible.
And the story of Noah, like the story of the Modern movement, is about creative destruction. Bill T. Jones’ would no doubt insist that his role (his words) “in the great discourse around art” is yet to be determined. He forges ahead as an artist by posing huge existential challenges to himself regardless of the honors and kudos and acclaim piled on year after year. Fame gives him the momentum to devise creative obstacles.
The most poignant theme, “random” or not, of Story/Time is the motif of Bill’s first partner, Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS almost twenty-five years ago. Every time Bill mentioned “Arnie” or “Arnie and I…” and every time he reminisced about something that happened in the 1970s in upstate New York when the two of them were in college, or after they moved down to NYC to start the company that still bears Arnie’s name, or the time Arnie photographed Louise Nevelson, or their tragicomic hitchhiking episodes – a softer hue crept into Bill’s mellifluous voice. Even if this nuance was concocted by my imagination, or by my knowledge of the romantic backstory, it is still delightfully contributory to my affection for that theme.
I see in referring to my tattered program from the show that at one point I scrawled in the darkness on the front of it – “BTJ is the curator of real life.” I wrote those words after a particularly effective sequence, an eviction story involving the dancers as a family in conflict with an harassing landlord. The variations on this theme – literally — moved from one side of the stage to the other, a logistical ballet so smoothly figured out that only in retrospect did one realize how much planning went into it. Layered on top of the dramatic movement, and moving in and out of the most heavenly and tricky set of movable scrims, the dancers unfurled their acting talents; in this case, placing “body against body” to create an athletic language. I have written previously (when we staged D-Man in the Waters in the Dance Division four years ago) about the unique shape of BTJ’s idiom. His choreography celebrates the “real body.” He valorizes all sizes and shapes and colors; and, in doing so, reminds the non-dancing viewers (like me) that the dance can/should be elicited out of daily movement. There’s the “curatorial” mentality in its finest essence. I have never had the opportunity to watch BTJ in rehearsal; I would like to imagine that he reaches into the individual dancer’s natural repertoire and selects/curates the most representative themes and then synthesizes them into the overall work.
“Bill, it’s the problem of beauty,” a curator replied when BTJ, walking through the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and passing a striking gestural canvas by the painter Joan Mitchell, asked “why it had taken so long for her to achieve recognition.” Hearing that trenchant line, another epiphany hit me last night…something else I had once read by Cage… and I rushed home to pull one of his books from the shelf.
Yes! – there it was — all the way back at the beginning of Cage’s original Indeterminacy lecture, delivered in September, 1958, at the Internationale Feriernkurse fur Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany [you can find it on pp.35-40 of the anthology Silences [Wesleyan University Press, 1973]. John Cage writes, “The function of the performer…is comparable to that of someone filling in color where outlines are given…He may do this in an organized way which may be subjected successfully to analysis…or he may perform his function as colorist in a way which is not consciously organized.”
With eager anticipation of BTJ’s coming back in March to work with our Dance students on this year’s staging of D-Man,
— N. B., “finished” @ 9:36 am, 1/22/12
Neil Baldwin is a widely-published cultural historian and biographer. As Professor of Theatre & Dance at Montclair State University, he conducts the ‘Danceaturgy’ Program for BFA dancers. He is also Director of The (virtual) MSU Creative Research Center www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch. His Web site is www.neilbaldwinbooks.com.