Acclaimed dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones is offering Minnesotans a chance to witness, and maybe even influence, the creation of his latest work.
The piece called "Story/Time" premieres early next year, but Jones and his company will present an open rehearsal of the work on Wednesday evening at the Walker Art Center to see how it works before an audience.
Jones has been a force in American dance for decades, first with his issue-oriented pieces on race and HIV such as "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" and "Still/Here."
More recently he's enjoyed huge success on Broadway with his Tony Award-winning shows "Spring Awakening," and "Fela."
But now, Jones says he is returning to his avant-garde roots for "Story/Time."
"It's a work that takes its inspiration from a classic John Cage composition, or experiment I guess, something called 'Indeterminancy,' that he started doing in the fifties," Jones said.
Cage was an exponent of chance in his work. For "Indeterminancy" he read 90 stories, each of them one-minute long, as modernist music played in the background. The order of the stories and the music would change for every performance.
Just as Cage did for his piece, for "Story/Time" Jones will sit at a desk to present 70 minute-long stories he's written for the piece. As he reads, members of his company dance around him, moving in ways which may or may not have anything to do with any particular story.
Jones admits he can't quite bring himself to entirely submit to Cage's rigor about leaving everything to chance.
"One of the conflicts I am having, I am running up against my own taste," Jones admits. "And I am a showman, I am theatrical. I am concerned maybe more than he was about audience. I am concerned about the arc. So he is my mentor. He is no longer with us, but I try to imagine him standing there and saying 'I dare you to do this, and just let chance determine your composition. Sometimes he wins. A lot of times he doesn't."
For one Story/Time rehearsal an actor reads the stories so Jones can watch the piece unfold. The stories all represent small incidents from Jones's life, interspersed with his musings about art, love, and people he's met.
Huge digital clocks hang around the stage, indicating when each story should begin and end, and also cuing the dancers as to when they should launch into different sequences. Jones says the piece keeps evolving, both by design and by chance.
"Things do happen," he says. "In a run, even today, I see relationships that I would never have been able to really organize. Accidents happen."
And of course audience members each bring their own reactions, based on experience and world view. Jones takes every opportunity to get feedback, even as he's being interviewed.
"Could you understand the stories?" he asked. "Could you follow them?" Wednesday's open rehearsal will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Jones and the company, and it seems likely Jones will be asking some of the questions.
He says "Story/Time" will continue to change in coming months before its premier in January at Peak Performances in Montclair, N.J., which co-commissioned the piece with the Walker. It will then move to the Walker in February.
"This is a big risk for me," he said. "Because it's very personal, the stories. But they are organized in a very dispassionate, grid-like, way. It's almost I feel, the discipline I feel like living as a middle-aged artist. Life does not... you don't control life, you know too much about it. Yet you have this desire to have form to have order."
Jones is a MacArthur Genius grant recipient, and a 2010 Kennedy Center honoree. Yet he feels he can't rest. "Story/Time" is clearly evidence of his need to keep creating.