Story/Time – Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company “Story/Time” at The Vets

Summary: This was amazing / your mind will be blown / absolutely go see it, or you will have missed out on ideas that you never would have thought of.

I decided to watch dance instead of going to a dance, and I think I made an excellent choice.

The stage is divided into 12 rectangles, 3 rows by 4 columns, each numbered. The choice of twelve evokes a sense of archaicness (counting by dozens, for example), but also the more obvious connections with 20th century composition, where the twelve semitones in the octave become equal players, instead of giving the tonic, dominant, subdominant, and leading tone privileged positions. You permute the 12 tones to get a ‘tone row,’ and then apply transformations to the sequence.

[if anyone went to the Ruth Simmons concert, this is probably what the student speaker meant by “21st century mathematics and <earlier> century <something>.”]

Spoiler alert. You really probably shouldn’t read beyond here, since no one deserves to be robbed of the  experience. To me, watching this performance was like jetskiing over a lake of ideas, exhilaration spraying everywhere, skin and senses barely able to hold on much less absorb it all.

[this is not a completely ‘random’ analogy. I went jetskiing for the first and only time on Lake Dunmore, on an excursion with the chamber music camp I went to that summer, Point CounterPoint. During those three weeks, I was also eaten alive by mosquitos, read The Grapes of Wrath, and picked strawberries; because I could read alto clef, and, ok, was a total music theory nerd, I got placed into the ‘highest’ theory cabin with Tim Whitehead, who introduced me to Ligeti.

Two weeks after that program, I went to Bellingham, WA for Marrowstone Music Festival, met Messrs Mahler and Bruckner, had Sinnamon Ice Cream at Mallard’s, and dipped into the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Who knew that I’d be jumping into Puget Sound four summers later?]

Ok. If that digression didn’t take away your gumption to continue, I suppose you may read on.

Anyway: Bill T. Jones walks on to the stage and asks the audience to raise their hands when they think a moment (a minute, he later corrects) has passed. I was only on my 50th second when Bill called time. “Excellent. There will be seventy more of those.”

The show is structured around seventy short stories, read aloud by Bill T. Jones, each a minute long. Some stories are about the creation of the work itself — stories about Arnie; but others were stranger, for example, the history of “hysteria” as the earliest diagnosed psychological disease (always for women), and its cure. Another story was on the width of railroads, the epic of backward compatibility that connects Amtrak to Caesar’s equine assets.

Anyway, Bill sits a desk in the center of the 3 x 4 grid, reads (but then later you wonder if he really is reading — from the balcony you can’t see his face, there’s been other cases of lip sync, and his voice is sometimes played back from different speakers, or from speakers, and differently); the dancers dance. Sometimes they each take up one square and do the same movement-sequence in different orientations; sometimes there is canon; I’m sure there was inverse and retrograde and I just missed it.

Some of the movements were recognizable as exercises that we’d done in class: the group moves as a flock, one person shouts “Fall!” and all others run to catch; another sequence of movements was recognizable as a possible exercise: the group runs in an oval, and the last person overtakes the first person; when anyone shouts reverse, the group reverses.

I could recognize some of the positions from class. People were using the Horton T (flat back, gesture leg extended parallel to the ground), spiraling; but there were so many movements that I’d never thought of before.

There was a sofa that converted into a bed, a cushy chair with a round base. There were two 2×1 panels (like foldable dominos) that were one-way translucent; sometimes these turned one of the twelve cells into a room.

Throughout, ‘music’ plays, though this seemed more obviously random. One really interesting bit was two voices singing the word “Time” at octaves. “Time! Time. Time! Time.”  The voices were always soft and gentle, but the symbolic significance is that octaves are just frequencies that are multiples of one another. So if A4 is 440 Hz, A5 is 880 Hz. And when you play A4, A5 is ringing anyway, as a harmonic. This all works because pitches are periodic waves, noisy air-nudges, and, well, what is time, but these periodic inexorable nudges in a non-spatial dimension?

almost needless: It was very hard to watch and process language and listen to the music at the same time!

“Absolute, true and mathematical time,
of itself and from its own nature, flows
equably without relation to anything
external.” (I. Newton, 1689)

• “Time is, like, Nature’s way of making
sure that everything doesn’t happen all
at once.” (Anonymous, circa 1968)

source:, slide 7

Oh, during this, at least for the first 25-ish minutes, time-elapsed is shown on these two big displays, bright lime-green, like an alarm clock. They disappear and mysteriously reappear at about the 65th minute.

More cool things: the Asian-looking dancer gets really angry sometime in the middle. Shouts of outrage (in southern-accented Mandarin, but Mandarin nonetheless) are piped and she acts the part very convincingly until at one point, the shouting is swallowed up by noise and her movements of anger fuse seamlessly into movements of dance.

This was really cool, but makes me ask why the choreographer had to call upon the Angry Asian Woman trope. Maybe I didn’t notice other ones; maybe there were some crop-gathering gestures performed by the non-White men. I’m sure the choreographer has written plenty of pieces where the Asian-looking dancer is just another dancer and not a shouting stereotype. This is one question I’d ask a  friend to ask during a Q&A session.

I had a few more notes, but in the dark on my tiny notepad, I wrote them all on top of each other and can’t read any of them. Story/Time was layer upon layer of clever ideas, but unlike the ideas in my notes, they amplified each other, instead of covering.


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