Challenging. It's a word that's been ascribed to New York choreographer Bill T. Jones throughout his career, a description both of his way of approaching his material and of the resulting work. Jones' dances have long been known for challenging social norms, expectations, audiences and critics -- most famously, the New Yorker's Arlene Croce who was once so appalled by his subject that she boycotted the performance but reviewed the dance nonetheless.
All the while, Jones has challenged himself as much as anyone: to keep working following the death of his partner, Arnie Zane; to tackle controversial topics and sometimes to avoid them; to take on projects both grand and modest -- in essence, to keep moving.
Now 62 years old, Jones continues to seek new sources of stimulation, new ways of working. On Friday, Jan. 30, Bay Area audiences will get a taste of one of his recent projects when Jones brings 2012's "Story/Time" to Stanford University.
An evening-length work combining spoken text, music and dance, "Story/Time" isn't exactly a single work; every show is different and is arranged in part by chance. The work was inspired by that of another iconic 20th-century artist: experimental composer John Cage. A few years ago, Jones re-discovered Cage's "Indeterminacy" from 1959: a series of recordings of the composer reading one-minute stories, set against the avant-garde music of David Tudor, who had been set up in a different studio, so that neither artist could hear the other as they recorded. At points in the album, Cage's voice is drowned out by the crashing of dissonant piano chords; at others, a soft shuffle of papers or a hollow rapping seems perfectly timed to reflect Cage's tone.
"I listened to it on and off for a few years," Jones explained in a recent telephone interview. "I loved his voice. Like Warhol, you never knew how mischievous he was being. Did he think most of us heard ('Indeterminacy') as music, or was it a sly way to do biography?"
To Jones, Cage's employment of randomness and chance occurrence, his implication of a kind of artistic neutrality and egolessness on the one hand yet use of personal narrative on the other became "an inspiration and a complication, an encouragement and a provocation." And so Jones decided to take on a new and challenging experiment: to "inhabit" Cage's work himself and see what resulted.
"A lot of black artists have taken on major masterpieces from the Western canon and injected themselves into them," the choreographer noted. "There's something about 'Indeterminacy' and how it's so associated with Cage and the mid-20th century that when you get a person like myself inhabiting it, you have to ask who can do it and who can not."
This preoccupation with identity and the right to make art is among the recurrent themes of Jones' career, and in "Story/Time," the artist brings spoken narrative to his ongoing investigation of the self.
"I am always struggling with the question of identity and who is looking at this world," he said, lapsing into a lyrical use of the second person as he gave an abbreviated autobiography. "You're a person who had a liberal-arts education, one of the first in your family who went to university; your mother had a third- or fourth-grade education; your dad had a sixth-grade education. So you're a child trying to resolve those dichotomies, and now a man trying to understand what it means to be a man with male privilege -- and at the same time, a black man -- and at the same time, a homosexual man."
In "Story/Time" Jones acknowledges an autobiographical impulse that feels at once new and familiar.
"I think there's this self-consciousness that comes with middle age, especially as a retired performer," he mused, adding that the habit of looking at the self is at once a preoccupation of our contemporary "selfie" culture and a time-honored tradition.
There are now more than 180 one-minute stories that make up the menu for "Story/Time." Many are personal; memories of Jones' late mother, Estella, and recollections from childhood sit alongside observations from daily life on the streets and in the dance studio. Some stories were contributed by dancers in the company; others come from articles and books Jones has read. Similarly, the movement phrases that make up this work have been accumulated from past works by Jones and Zane, as well as new material generated both by Jones and by the company. Jones also collaborated with electronic composer Ted Coffey, and Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong has been responsible for corralling these disparate pieces of text, music and movement into a shifting score that changes with every performance -- she uses a computer program to shuffle the deck, so to speak -- yet retains its essential character.
At the center of each performance, literally, is the statuesque Jones, who sits at a table on stage while the dancers swoop and dart around him. In his sonorous voice, with the command and gravitas of a classically trained actor, he reads his stories in the designated order of the evening, though he admits to making the occasional pre-show edit.
"There was a time when I was concerned about the last story of the evening," he said. "I can't say I'm that concerned now. It's amazing that almost any story that comes at the end seems appropriate."
What's become more interesting, Jones went on to explain, is the idea that the end might be arbitrary, even unnecessary. Recalling a time when Cage came to see the company perform and complimented Jones on a duet that "felt like it could go on forever," the choreographer said he never really understood the comment until he began creating on "Story/Time."
"It was only when I began to work with this material and in this modality that I came to understand this feeling that if the audience has the stamina, there's no reason the work has to stop," he said. "I fantasize about doing a five-hour version. It doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things where it starts and where it ends."
That's a surprising statement from an artist whose work has traditionally used technique, staging and a great deal of intentionality to create order out of disorder, meaning out of chaos. Yet it turns out the freedom of Cage's approach constitutes an appealing invitation -- or maybe an irresistible challenge.
"I don't want to live in an anarchic world, but as an artist that comes close to what goes on between my ears and also in my body," Jones mused. "I have to struggle to establish rules or a hierarchy of values and behavior. I think what Cage was inviting was to let it go."
What: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in "Story/Time"
Where: Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford University
When: Friday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m., with a free conversation with the artist on Thursday, Jan. 29, at Bing Concert Hall's Gunn Atrium, 5:30 p.m.
Info: Go to live.stanford.edu or call 650-724-2464.