Introducing last Friday evening’s showing of “Story/Time,” presented by Cal Performances, Bill T. Jones strode to the center of Zellerbach stage, pausing. He made a simple request of the audience. “I would like you to do a little warm-up with me … a conceptual warm-up,” Jones began, asking the audience to raise their hands when they had sensed the passage of a full minute. “That’s all you need to know about tonight. There is going to be 70 of those,” said Jones, taking his seat behind a white desk. A digital clock appeared in the background as Jones began to read, and a cast of dancers clothed in sweatpants flooded the stage.
The highlight of “Story/Time” is not necessarily the dancing itself. The dancers in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company are stellar specimens of human motion, executing the most difficult steps with ease, and, perhaps most impressively, trust. They possess incredible stamina, implementing impeccable technique over the long interludes of Jones’s tremendous choreography, which spans both time and discipline.
Jones’s narration of the stories gives the production power, his voice booming throughout, hitting intimations with such power as to create an emotional tension otherwise impossible in the production of numerous mismatched stories.
While there are recurring aspects to the narratives, for the most part the stories are unrelated and vary hugely in content. Jones moves from describing his final hours with his mother Estelle, to reliving a dance practice, to reciting a sound bite of history about the Industrial Revolution.
They unfurl in completely random order, often skipping directly from touching moments to deadpan recitations. His pacing changes with each one-minute story, creating varied emotional effects.
Jones’s delivery of the narrative is the lone aspect of “Story/Time” not left to chance. The connection between narrative, dance and music may be fiercely clear in one story and completely ambiguous in the next. Which is not to say that there are no messages to be deciphered in moments of ambiguity. Miraculously, Jones leverages emotional depth without any real linearity of story, subject or message within the piece’s frenetic landscape. Attempting to understand the root of these moments of poignancy is daunting, however, especially when repeated 70 times over.
There are occasional moments where “Story/Time” leaps off of the page and not in a good way. Extended nudity — both male and female — is one such example. The two minute stint was shocking and perhaps a bit too extended. Naked bodies are a distraction from anything else except fellow naked bodies, and the audience stuttered on it. At one point in the night, a deafening swirl of electronic sounds descended over Zellerbach, leaving the viewer to watch Jones’s mouth as he read on, despite being rendered mute by the noise. The intended shock factor is a little heavy-handed.
“Story/Time” wields serious emotional power in spite of itself, with ambiguity as its beating heart. Because, while there are undertones of theme throughout — of family, aging, race, ethics — nothing is ever made explicit, refusing the viewer an easy way out. It is in search of these bonds, as well as in the happy moments of unexpected, insecure and nuanced poignancy, that the true power of “Story/Time” is unveiled.
And sometimes the time on that digital clock absolutely flies.