“I want to start this performance with a small exercise. Please raise your hands when you think a full minute has passed – and no cheating on watches or cell phones.”
So began Story/Time, the latest performance from Bill Jones at the Walker Art Center.
There is no imposed plot in this production, just Jones himself reading short stories in an expressive, Samuel Jackson-meets-Morgan Freeman tone with an electronic soundtrack and dancers tumbling all over the stage. It is a difficult concept to grasp, and that is the point – Jones wants you to “watch yourself watching the show,” becoming more aware of your viewing habits and expectations of what performance means.
Jones found inspiration in a past performance of a similar nature (Indeterminancy, 1958) by John Cage. Cage sat in a chair while a piano played offstage as the only accompaniment (the entire performance can be purchased through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings).
Jones’ production is a bit more complex, with a swath of dancers abstractly interpreting each story to a soundtrack mixed live. The dancer’s movements exhibited shades of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in the popular Broadway show The King and I, with angular poses reminiscent of East Asian performance combined with the graceful athleticism of modern ballet.
One of Jones’ stories became a recurring theme throughout the show, and it was fascinating to watch the performers interpret it anew each time. The tale describes a family in dire financial straits, who are severely abused by their landlord and later take revenge on him. Each time it was retold, the story evolved by changing the names and genders of each character (echoed in the dancers, who rotated playing each role) until all that was left were simple pronouns of “he” and “she.”
It was an excellent exercise in how small details can entirely change our perception of morality. At first hearing, the story seemed horrifying, abusive. By the third, nameless retelling, it seemed so vague and familiar that its impact disappeared.
Time is an important theme throughout the show, with a digital clock running for most of the performance and an outright announcement that it would last for exactly 70 minutes. Time’s appearance and disappearance (most notably seen in that ticking clock) echoes the experience of being an audience member, as well as real life. We don’t always pay attention to where our time goes, and when we do, it can often seem infinitely long.
Challenging and unpredictable, Story/Time is another exercise in viewership. Should we expect theater to conform to our preconceived notions of narrative and format? If we should, who and what should determine the “acceptable” form? If not, where do we draw the line?