Bill T. Jones Delivers the First of Three Toni Morrison Lectures
Bill T. Jones delivered "Past Time", the first of three Toni Morrison lectures, in Richardson Auditorium on Tuesday, April 17 at 8 p.m. The series is entitled “The Life of an Idea: Investigating Belonging, Appropriating and Adapting in the Context of Time.”
Jones is an internationally acclaimed director, choreographer, and dancer. He is the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award, two Tony Awards for his choreography on Broadway (Spring Awakening and FELA!), and the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors. He also has directed and performed work in collaboration with Toni Morrison.
During this talk, Jones discussed the influences on his art, his philosophy in approaching art, and especially his reception of the tradition of composer John Cage, who inspired Jones’ most recent production for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Story/Time. Jones will be performing a solo version of Story/Time on Thursday, April 19 at 8 p.m. in McCosh Hall, Room 10, accompanied by Story/Time composer Ted Coffey. A limited quantity of tickets are still available for this lecture.
Jones told the audience that when he agreed to talk at Princeton, “I realized I didn’t want to say something. I wanted to do something.” Throughout his talk, especially when sharing memories or quotations, the auditorium was permeated by sometimes subtle, sometimes overwhelming atmospheric background music.
In describing his relationship with avant-garde art, Jones mentioned Morton Feldman, Merce Cunningham, and many others, but chose to discuss mainly the artistic philosophy of John Cage, whom Jones called an “icon of modernism” and the “best symbol of the tradition I have tried for so long to be a part of.” John Cage is an experimentalist composer and music theorist who studied under Shoenburg. He is perhaps best known for 4’33”, which is performed in absence of deliberate sound.
Jones remembers his first encounter with a performance by Cage in 1972 at the College-in-the-Woods of Binghamton University where Jones was studying dance. “I was bored during the performance,” Jones recalled, “but then I couldn’t stop thinking about the event for days after. And that taught me, boredom is not a problem in and of itself. The night of that performance was a second birth for me, a coming into consciousness to the world of ideas – or what I choose to call, a discourse. I cannot say I was really in discourse but rather a newcomer, hearing the spirited exchanges of a heated debate from an anteroom. That night, I was given the concept that art is an exercise. I realized that art was a means by which I could validate my place in the world.”
From this night onward, Jones saw himself as participating in a discourse – which he defines as “expanding an art practice into something broader, more democratic, participating in the world of ideas.” The discourse that Jones concerned himself with was the same as that of Cage, who saw the act of contribution and the experience of the auditors as separate – and who gave higher priority to the creation of art than its reception.
Jones more clearly articulated his relationship with Cage’s philosophy in the Q&A, when he was asked how such an internal medium can be considered a discourse. He explained, “There is a sense that we [the artists] are not supposed to care about the reception of the piece. We’re supposed to be in another plane. Or are we crass and craven? That is the rub: many performers are hungry, needy human beings. That’s what they aim at us a lot: that we’re misshapen and that that’s why we’re on stage. But a lot of us think it is our spiritual action, and thus, it is our discourse. So as to the question: Would I do it if no one liked it? Twenty years ago, I would have said yes. Now, I don’t know...”
During the lecture Jones discussed his newest production, Story/Time, a performance which follows in Cage’s tradition by using chance-controlled or aleatoric music, where chance determines the nature of the piece (as opposed to improvisation, which depends on the will of the artist). The piece on which Story/Time is based is Cage’s Indeterminacy (1958), in which Cage read 90 one-minute stories in a random order over a score composed by David Tudor. In Story/Time, Jones reads 70 one-minute stories, chosen randomly from 150 that he has composed about his life and people he has met. Ted Coffey composes the score, and in addition, the nine dancers of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company “float around” Jones in 60-second choreographies. “Everyone stays tuned in,” Jones said, because no one knows what will happen next.
Although Cage had his stories exactly timed, Jones does not. “I intuit,” he says, because he has a different focus: “Cage always said, find something unique. I say, in addition, find something authentic.” This is founded in his preoccupation over the question of “what really is artifex” – when the artists are responding to the chance as well, and when they like the audience do not know what comes next.
Tickets for “Story/Time” and Jones’ final lecture “With Time” are available through the Frist Campus Center Ticketing Office by calling 609-258-9220 or visiting the ticket office between 12:00pm-6:00pm Monday-Friday. For more information on the next two lectures, visit http://www.princeton.edu/caas/events