New York Live Arts is the home of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. It was also the venue for the latest presentation of Jones’ “Story/Time #35, 36, 37, 38 & 39” (Nov. 4-15) since the premiere in 2012 at Peak Performances in New Jersey.
The 20th century experimentalist John Cage and his work on “Indeterminacy,” where Cage read 90 randomly sequenced one-minute stories interrupted by a chance musical score, is the inspiration for Jones’ “Story/Time.” In each evening’s chance-inspired performance, for 70 minutes by nine dancers, in a mix of choreography from the company’s 32-year history, Jones shares 170-plus stories he has written or collected. Before every sequence, the stories, lights, sound and choreography are randomly selected through chance procedure.
For this iteration, the numbers added to the title indicated versions within versions. “Story/Time #35” and “Story/Time #38” featured Jones and the company in the classic version. In “Story/Time #36,” actress and guest artist Kathleen Chalfant joined Jones and both shared personal stories. Lois Welk, a former collaborator with Jones and Zane,” joined for “Story/Time #37, and Theaster Gates, the Chicago-based conceptual artist, along with three members of the Black Monks of Mississippi, joined Jones and company in “Story/Time #39: Workin’ and Wailing.”
At the top, as he did for each show, Jones asked the audience to quietly, without cheating, raise their hands when they think a minute has gone by. He gave us the start time. As was expected, hands rose at different times. Jones laughed, so did the audience. These multiple minute-long experiences happened throughout the evening.
In “Story/Time #39,” Jones and Gates are perfect together, but add in the company and the Black Monks of Mississippi, and there is perfect times four. The set is reconfigured to include Gates (with two tables on both sides of the stage), one for Gates and the other for Jones, where he reads his stories from a binder. A large, intermittently lit rectangular structure sits in one corner and is balanced with the musicians’ instruments on the other.
Jones churns out multilayered stories from his mother, father and sister to chance meetings with Geoffrey Holder and myriad others about life and his life’s work. The company crosses them with razor-sharp movement that punctuated complicated sequences. Especially lovely were the duets throughout. Occasionally, in their duets, Gates and Jones, danced with words and song prompted by questions such as “What keeps you awake at night?” and “How do you define self?” or the topics of “fame” and “self.”
The responses were thought-provoking, drawing the audience into an intimate coming together of these brothers. For example, not long after they exchanged words in response to the topic “fame,” while the dancers move through a percolator-like, trust sequence where one falls from nowhere and is caught, Jones quoted his father: “I say you live and learn, you forget it all and then you die.” Likewise, in response to “self” later on, Gates said, “It’s becoming more and more complicated.”
The movement and discussions are more visceral when they become one led by the wailing of the Black Monks of Mississippi. Their all-involved rendition of “Walk With Me Lord” was simply chilling as their voices reverberated and the dancers’ bodies softly vibrated. Kudos to the dancers Antonio Brown, Rena Butler, Talli Jackson, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Lamichael Leonard Jr., I-Ling Liu, Erick Montes Chavero, Joseph Poulson, Jenna Riegel and Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong, named as collaborators of the choreography. Plaudits also go to the team that helped realize the entire work, featuring music is by Ted Coffey, decor by Bjorn Amelan, lighting by Robert Wierzel and costume by Liz Prince.