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U.Va. Music Professor Ted Coffey Collaborates with Bill T. Jones in 'Story/Time'

A University of Virginia music professor is composing and performing the music for an ambitious new performance piece by noted choreographer and artist Bill T. Jones.

Ted Coffey, an associate music professor in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, is currently rehearsing for the January debut of "Story/Time," a stage performance by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company inspired by artist and composer John Cage's 1958 work "Indeterminacy."

"Story/Time" consists of Jones on stage telling 90 one-minute stories from his life, which are accompanied by choreographed dance and music.

"It's a personal piece for Bill, because he's telling stories that have his family and early experiences at their center, as well as stories involving key people in the arts who are his colleagues and friends, and stories about the texture of his life right now, as we're working on the piece," Coffey said.

Jones and Coffey met in February at a U.Va. panel discussion on the role of chance in the creative process, part of the "Design Thinking Mashup" symposium.

Jones said he was impressed by Coffey's understanding of the mid-20th century avant-garde aesthetic and by the fact that Coffey approached that era from a modern perspective.

"Here was a person who understood the spirit of this kind of experimentation, but was by no means hemmed in by it or bound by it," Jones said. "I don't meet a lot of people like that, who have a working knowledge of the period, but also are working artists right now and can make the two work together."

After the meeting, Jones told Coffey of his plans for "Story/Time." Later, Jones invited Coffey – who specializes in computer music – to create music for the piece.

"I'm performing it every time, and it's different every time," Coffey said. "I'm using a computer, but also singing and playing guitar and acoustic percussion – sounds produced live and not mediated by a computer."

The two are rehearsing now with the dancers in a series of residencies, including one at U.Va. this fall. The stories that make up the piece are performed in a different order each time, as are the dances. Both are chosen by rolling the dice, so the performance changes each time. Coffey said there is room for improvisation in all the elements: from the dancers, in the music and in the way Jones delivers the stories.

"I oscillate between responding to the content and diction of the stories, and being in dialogue with the dance, sometimes rather closely," Coffey said. "And sometimes I just kind of go out on my own and try to act in a way that is without respect to either, which may be more akin to Cage's 'Indeterminacy.'"

Jones said he and Coffey have talked a lot about the "menu" for the performance, and whether certain stories will have a certain fixed musical corollary.

"The way the music enters into the discourse of the piece changes all the time," Jones said. "It's very much informed by Ted's feelings of what's going on in the stage."

Though some elements are fixed, having the order of the piece change and having some room for interpretation and improvisation among Jones, the dancers on stage and Coffey, who will perform from off-stage, means the piece will never be static, Coffey said.

"No matter how fixed the structure might be, there's all this room for wild-card and play in there," he said. 

"Story/Time" is set to debut in January at Montclair State University in New Jersey; subsequent performances may include international stops, Coffey said. Though only 90 of the stories will be performed in a given night, Jones has written many more. The performance is evolving as the group rehearses, Jones said.

"Rehearsals are madness," Jones said. "This is one of the scariest things, even for a person who has done a lot of scary things."

– by Rob Seal

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