For three weeks this March, students in the USC Dance program have had the privilege to learn innovative perspectives on movement and performance art from two members of the influential Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. Shane Larson and Jacoby Pruitt have been in residence at the university since March 13, during which time they have taught classes, participated in community outreach, and set the Bill T. Jones work Story/Time: Revisited on the USC Dance Company. Shane, Jacoby and three other BTJ/AZ performers (Barrington Hinds, Danielle Marshall and Marie Paspe) will perform the work alongside 19 USC dancers April 1-2 at the Koger Center for the Arts.
Conceived as a response to the John Cage spoken word composition Indeterminacy, Story/Time: Revisited is a 60-minute work comprised of 1-to-3-minute dance “stories,” each utilizing a unique movement vocabulary inspired by creator Bill T. Jones’ 40-year choreographic history. The sequence of the stories, referred to by the choreographers as “menu items,” is generated at random just before the work is performed, as is the decision of which cast members will perform each piece. On stage digital clocks help the audience know when each story begins and ends. As described on the Company’s website, Story/Time “challenges audience members to find meaning and connection in the sweep of randomized, disparate elements.”
“Being an artist... I find there are questions that never go away,” Jones said in a 2012 interview. “Why do I do what I do? Who am I doing it for? What about the audience? With Story/Time, it’s those questions, meeting Cage’s mid-20th-century sense of—I think [it’s] a kind of alienation, actually, that says, ‘I’m not going to pander to what you like. I’m going to do something that is driven by an intellectual set of questions.’”
Below, Shane and Jacoby tell us more about the creation of Story/Time: Revisited, Bill T. Jones’ unique approach to choreography, and what audiences can expect from the upcoming performances.
What is it like to choreograph a work like Story/Time: Revisited? You’ve had just three weeks to set all of these pieces.
Shane Larson: Hard work.
Jacoby Pruitt: And blind faith. You just have to trust the people in the room and just know that we're going on the same journey together. I'm teaching you all the minutes and you're learning all the minutes. This is a piece that's really about the process of learning and the process of doing.
S: The piece is inspired by John Cage's Indeterminacy and Bill T. Jones’ preoccupation with that. And also the Jasper Johns quote, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” He was reaching back through his movement archives, through the history of the company, pulling out different chunks of material and figuring out ways to spin it in different directions and reconnect with it in a new way.
Even for a large professional company, it's a huge, huge undertaking, so these students
definitely have their work cut out for them, but they're doing a great job. We're
coming in with a lot of preexisting material, but how the material is shaped and ultimately
put on stage, in what order, and how it's spun is either determined through our collective
artistry or random.org, which we use a lot.
J: There's one master spreadsheet of menu items and they are all assigned a number. Then those numbers are put into random.org and spun. Whatever sequence it gives us is the sequence in which the pieces appear on stage. Then we have each name of the cast, so for this performance 24 names, listed across the top of the spreadsheet noted by their initials. We then spin these names to decide who will be doing what piece. Then we spin a number sequence to figure out who will be doing what in each of 12 boxes that the stage is divided into. So, if the phrase needs to exist inside the context of a box, we find out who is in what box. For the most part, we leave directions, speed, and phrasing of movement in various degrees up to the performers to solve those problems in real time.
Each dancer has the spreadsheet that is created for the performance with them on stage. You have to memorize all the minutes in which you have to consecutively be on stage and where you have to be. And when you're not on stage, you're sitting on the side and you have a little time to do a review. It is a lot of information at one time.
Is there an overarching concept that unites all of these random selections?
S: A lot of it is contextualized abstractly, but it's like the way that all of the little things that you do during your day end up affecting each other. Like even how you're sitting in this chair. How might that affect how you're feeling later? All of the items exist independently, but together create a certain kind of feeling or motif. And of course, these are all things that are subjective to the audience.
The work isn't narrative. The work is very based in the body and in the task of the movement that we're doing. I would say the obvious through line is the material, the style of the material and the kind of task-based items that we do. Those in combination with the other more lush movement vocabulary is what creates the experience you have as a viewer.
Many of the phrases were taken from 40 years of work as well. In that sense, is the piece also sort of a retrospective of Bill T. Jones' choreography?
J: A retrospective and kind of a repurposing.
S: For the sound design as well. I’m doing the sound design for this piece and I'm pulling a lot of sounds from the company's repertoire, as well, repurposing and remixing them. There's everything from a string quartet, complete electronic music, a section called Cacophony, which starts with clapping and grows to this huge thing. There's a lot of everything, even clips of just me recording the TV as I flip through it.
Bill is focused a lot on using the body as an architectural form and how to manipulate the body as a piece of something in space. At the same time, there are flavors of athleticism, of lyricism, of artistry, of improvisation, and of identity that are all mixed in.
When you perform this work, do you end up feeling that there is some arc or connection between the pieces?
S: Definitely. At the beginning of the show, everyone's riled up and ready to go. But there's something really interesting and lovely about the mental and physical fatigue setting in that allows you to kind of drop everything else around you and just focus on what you're doing and the movement. And I think that's when you really see a lot of beautiful things shine. A note that I get from Bill a lot is to not try to embellish too many things and just let the abstract thing, the movement, speak for itself. The meaning will come from the person watching it.
What does it mean to you personally to be a part of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company?
S: You have to be, as Bill would say, a grand professional. Sometimes the work is not always what you want it to be or what you like, but I think the fact that everyone is rising to the occasion to meet each other at the ground level, that is the work that we're doing and what makes being a company member important. The group isn't made up of soloists. Everyone has very individual personalities, but the work that we do is very much based around the group, the community, and the company.
J: For me, this is like a dream come true. I've wanted to dance for this company for a long time, and all the things that Shane is saying are actually a big reason I'm drawn to it. This feels so full circle, because the first time I ever saw the company was seeing the company that made Story/Time perform it at New York Live Arts, which is where we're based. Shane and I went to college together and we were performing a work of Bill’s and they invited us to one of the shows. I remember seeing this work and being so blown away and like, “Oh my God, this is what I want to do.” So, eight years later getting to be a part of this work feels really amazing.
What would you tell an audience member to expect from a Bill T. Jones dance performance?
J: I call it very authentic. Even the approach to the work and the way that we're coached. A lot of the movement doesn't have to do with big flash and presentation. A lot of it has to do with dealing with the task at hand and allowing the movement to speak for itself. I’ve danced with other companies where you put on a show and our audience is coming to see us solve the problem.
S: It's really about the body and mind connecting. Thinking and moving. That's also in our mission statement at New York Live Arts. Supporting thinking and moving.
I’m so impressed by the willingness of the artists here. This is a really big undertaking and they all walked in with a lot of excitement and tenacity to get the work done. I’ve felt such a receptive spirit from everyone embracing the newness of what we're presenting and jumping on board with us to go on this wild ride.
How would you describe the qualities of Bill T. Jones' choreography in this iteration of Story/Time?
J: It's an amalgamation of a lot of things. It runs the gamut of the rep that we're bringing.
S: Bill is focused a lot on using the body as an architectural form and how to manipulate the body as a piece of something in space. At the same time, there are flavors of athleticism, of lyricism, of artistry, of improvisation, and of identity that are all mixed in.
What do you hope an audience takes from the performance of Story/Time: Revisited?
S: I hope that no matter how abstract or wild or bizarre it is, whatever they see, that they're able to have an experience watching it. Whether they like it or hate it, as long as they have an experience watching the show, I think that's good. I think the goal of seeing this is to be connected with what we're doing, be connected with art, and be connected with the community.
J: I’m hoping that everyone can walk away from this experience feeling like, wow, we really accomplished something, and that the audience can partake in seeing their community undertake this huge project and walk away with an art-filled finished product.
Educational outreach is a big part of the Company’s mission. Have you taught this work at other universities?
S: This is the first time we've done a setting of this piece at a college. We've done a smaller version of it at the American Dance Festival before, but this is the first time we're doing a larger residency and with this many people.
How has it been working with the students in the USC Dance Company?
J: I’m so impressed by the willingness of the artists here. This is a really big undertaking and they all walked in with a lot of excitement and tenacity to get the work done. I’ve felt such a receptive spirit from everyone embracing the newness of what we're presenting and jumping on board with us to go on this wild ride. I've been really, really impressed with how they've shown up and continue to show up each day.
S: It's amazing to see people's progress through class and through rehearsal. Even when, as often happens with us in the company, there’s a phrase you really don't like doing, just working with it and through it is really a positive experience to see.