A Legendary Choreographer Refuses to Become an Icon

Choreographer Bill T. Jones is in danger of becoming an icon. In danger, he says, because “icons are there to gather dust and for somebody to come along and smash. No, no—I’m a living and working artist.” Of course, by almost any measure Jones is already an icon: he co-founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Comapany with his late partner, Arnie Zane, won a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, a Kennedy Center award, and two Tonys. His final public dance performance was a solo in the Louvre.. But now in his seventh decade, Jones is still taking new creative risks.

Story/Time is a recent project, which combines dance and narratives with an element of chance. In each 70 minute performance, Jones sits at a desk onstage, reading 70 one-minute stories. The order of the stories changes randomly, thanks to a web-based random number generator. Each story is paired with a one-minute sequence from the Jones/Zane repertoire, which dancers perform on stage with Jones.

The inspiration for these random pairings came from John Cage, who often used randomness in his compositions (and worked on dance projects with his longtime partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham). According to Jones, Cage believed that randomness was more likely to force creativity than simply improvisation. “He says improvisers think they are being free,” Jones says, “but actually, while improvising, you consciously or unconsciously make all choices that appeal to you, that you know. And he says this is not the way to find the new.”

Cage’s compositions can be challenging for audiences. Randomness can mean abandoning traditional narrative arcs, with all their tension and climax. It can make listening to music or watching a dance harder work for audience members. He says “mucking around with indeterminacy” might mean losing some of the audience he’s gathered over the years, but the possibility of making something entirely new at this stage of his career is worth the risk.

In fact, Jones says that aging has helped him become more bold. “Right now, I’ve had enough success. Now is a time for me to be brave. Try something! One must cultivate what the Buddhists call ‘beginner’s mind.’ How do I get back to a place of not knowing? When every decision was terrifying and exhilarating? I can not use being 62 years old as an excuse not to have fresh mind.”

You can watch excerpts from Story/Time and listen our interview with Bill T. Jones below.

BTJ/AZ Story/Time trailer from New York Live Arts on Vimeo.


 A portrait of the Bill T Jones Dance Company

It's Never Too Late to Dance

Renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones stopped dancing in his 50s - and recently, did something radical. He created a dance based on John Cage's ideas about chance and randomness. He felt compelled to reinvent his career at this stage of his life.

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