As a choreographer, Bill T. Jones has never been one to shy away from narratives about history. He has tackled contemporary stories, most notably about AIDS in D-Man in the Water (1989) and Still/Here (1994). He has reached back into the vexed chronicles of racism, utilizing at one time Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel for the structure of Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990) and at another the biography of Abraham Lincoln for Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray (2009). He took Flannery O’Connor as the text of another of his dance-theater pieces in Reading, Mercy, and the Artificial Nigger (2004).
Last week the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Co. came back to town with another historical narrative that melds the personal and the global, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane (2015). This time his dance is based on an oral history that Jones recorded with Dora Amelan, his mother-in-law of her experiences as a young Jewish girl in Belgium and France during the Nazi occupation in World War II. (Amelan’s son Bjorn, the company’s stage designer of long standing, and Jones were married earlier this year.)
In the O’Connor inspired dance, the story-telling was framed as a reading of “The Artificial Nigger” that took place on stage, complete with book in hand, Amelan’s oral history is told by the dancers themselves, each of the four men and five women taking up the roles of interviewer (Jones) and subject (Amelan) in turns throughout the 75 minutes that the performance lasts. It is a daring maneuver, for it both highlights and submerges the temporal distance between the events being narrated and the depiction of them in the dance onstage. On the one hand, this is a story being told by a woman in her nineties, with all of the opportunity for reflection and commentary that entails; on the other, it is a theatrical presentation in which young people speak the words and tell the story while moving athletically and gracefully through space in a way that is meant to be understood as contemporaneous with the events being described. Some critics have been discomfited by the apparent dissonance, but I found that the use of an almost Conradian framing narrative was crucial to the evening’s success.
Telling tales of the Holocaust, let alone using them as the basis of a performance created by someone who wasn’t there, and moreover isn’t Jewish, is a tricky business. The freight of moral judgment is a cloud over these stories always; we want from history not only to learn what happened but what it meant, and whether the actors in the story behaved with propriety, honor, and wisdom. There is no narrative in the twentieth century in which it is harder to resist the pull to judgment that that of the Holocaust, and no artistic experiment more difficult to handle.
That Jones is able to do this is yet another proof of his extraordinary imagination and his ability to create stories that reveal an essential humanity. Rather than simply tell the story, he uses the framing device to insert that awareness of time’s passage and the opportunity for reflection that it brings, to foreground the personal truth of Dora’s story. She escaped deportation to the camps and extermination several times through what seems like sheer luck: asked for her identity papers on a train, she produces not the forged set that declared her to be a Frenchwoman, but the real set that documented by Jewishness; the Gestapo guard chooses to turn a blind eye and lets her continue on her way.
And paradoxically, she spends the war working at an internment center at the food of the Pyrenees where Jews were held before being selectively sent off to the concentration camps further east. Working with a volunteer group whose chief purpose was to ameliorate the misery of the camp’s inmates, she cajoled the German guards into sparing some of the children to be sent off to orphanages, but at the terrible cost of consigning their parents to death while she herself remained free. Prompted at a couple of points by Jones to reflect on this tension, she replies that in the moment, she and her fellow volunteers did only what they could; the times did not allow the luxury of thought, but demanded only action. In Dora’s case, action meant succor, however little it might be.
The dancing and the staging were classic Jones: athletic, abstract, representational, humorous, gorgeous, often all at once. There were moments when the story was represented almost literally, such as the arrival of the Germans at the family’s hotel in Antwerp. At other times, huge shadows projected against the backdrop or dancers, dimly lit, seeming to vibrate with tension, provided a more metaphorical illumination of the emotional states being described.
There were moments too when it became possible to laugh, or at least to smile. One of the Resistance fighters, a cousin of Dora’s, was a young man named Marcel Mangel. Many years later, Marcel became famous around the world after changing his surname, for the stage, to Marceau. A dancer clad in a quintessentially French-striped shirt and baggy pants paraded through the action on stage from time to time with a waddling walk that evoked Charlie Chaplin as much as Marceau and once again reminded the audience that as grim as life was in those days, there were moments of human warmth, of community and caring.
There were other moments when Jones’s staging and choreography recalled for me some of the bombastic effects that he employed two years ago in creating his new choreography for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The main character in that piece was not a Russian peasant maiden who would dance herself to death to ensure the fertility of the earth, but a shell-shocked young soldier who was to be a different sort of sacrifice for a harsher god. The connections that Jones established between the two wars in this way heightened the dehumanization common to both and the tremendous cost to ordinary people that the mania for conquest and destruction brought to Europe repeatedly in the first half of the last century.
When I first saw the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co. thirty years ago I was struck by the daring chances he took with what was still fairly traditional modern dance choreography, and by the way in which he had built a company that broke with the expectations we have for lithe, often almost petite dancers, and for the way he brought a multiracial company together in what was still a fairly segregated art form. Over the years he has continued to break boundaries, pushing dance into areas that we might consider acting, or story-telling while developing a spare choreographic style that now often recalls Merce Cunningham more than any other guiding spirit–but Merce Cunningham with narrative, story, and emotion infused in every step. I am no longer as consistently surprised by Jones’s innovations as I once was, but I still never know what to expect when I settle into my seat at the theater. His performances remain thought-provoking and unsettling forays into the human condition, laden with history, big enough to contain the grandest of human hearts. He is the most characteristically American of modern choreographers, one we can claim with great pride despite the troubling image of ourselves that he holds up in his magical mirrors.