Known for his bold treatment of themes like sexual repression, bigotry, and religious ardor, Bill T. Jones wasn’t merely trying to shock an audience recently when he admitted that, as regards his personal accountability to racial issues, “I’ve been a self-involved son of a bitch.” What he meant was that his work is necessarily couched in his own rich and conflicted sense of racial identity. Nowhere is Jones’s three-pronged approach—the intellectual sophistication with its trailing dimension of suffering, the Southern Baptist cultural baggage minus the faith, a legacy of anger fueling a transgressive aesthetic—clearer than in his new, autobiographical Story/Time.
Jones arranges this history, based on John Cage’s Indeterminacy, into 70 randomly shuffled one-minute pieces. Its shifting registers either affirm the dignity of blackness, with earnest references to “right bodies” constrained to “right technique,” or come down hell-bent on alienation, inhabiting dance as one might inhabit an asylum, irresponsive to any obligation to “uphold the race.” Sitting at a desk, Jones recites prose that tends to the florid, but his staging here is so crisp we can forgive him. Dancers jet around a black floor divided into “cabins” with white tape; the only furniture besides the desk is a black leather couch, which recalls a therapist’s office at the same time as it serves as the site of a traumatic event revisited several times in different forms. Strong, articulate, and edgy in their movements, the dancers function like a specially developed technology for overcoming grief.