Taking testimony from a Holocaust survivor and turning it into a dance is an intriguing but risky proposition, especially if you’re not Jewish yourself . How do you do justice to the words and the truths they contain while still creating something new from them? How do art and life, imagination and reality, coexist? As long as he has been choreographing and dancing, Bill T. Jones has never shied away from these questions. ,
Jones had a starring role in Marlon Riggs’ documentary on the multiplicity of expressions of African American identity “Black is…Black Ain’t, Still/Here.” A 1994 work prompted by the death of his longtime partner Arnie Zane, who died complications from AIDS six years earlier, featured dancers from his and Zane’s company alongside video and audio footage of interviews that Jones conducted with people suffering from terminal illnesses.
The work brought about a firestorm when several of New York‘s dance critics wrote pieces laying out their refusal to see or review it. Most other critics didn’t feel this way, but those who abstained felt that Jones put himself beyond critique by using dying people in his act. Jones seems to not have deviated from his shock and awe tactics in his performance on Friday night in the ree-branded UNCG Auditorium, as he is touring his orginal choreography “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane.”
“Analogy/Dora: Tramontane” uses stories of World War II told by French Holocaust survivor Dora Amelan. In a series of interviews with Amelan, Jones choreographed the material for a piece positioned firmly in the postmodern tradition. “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane” features the members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company speaking aloud parts of the interviwes. They tell Dora’s stories of working as a nurse and social worker in detention camps in occupied Vichy, France, all while they dance.
The dynamics of this are ever changing. In the beginning, two dancers sit off to the side and speak the dialogue while others move onstage. As the piece progresses, speaking and dancing become more fluid and seamless, cordless mics are handed off; women recite the part of Dora while being lifted and held straight in the air by other dancers. Two performers manage a gruelingly intertwined duet as a third holds the mic to their mouths so they may also speak. My astonishment here culminated in a rather small female dancer lifting and spinning a much larger male partner while seamlessly reciting her lines.
The relationship between physical movement and the storyline shifts often as well. At times, the dancers almost act out Dora’s tales word for word. She tells of a husband and wife holding hands before being separated by deportation, and a male and a female dancer enter the stage to do so. At other points, the dancing acts as a kind of punctuation to the text — when a teenage Dora protects her father from a group of thugs by telling them, “he’s not here” and the line hangs in the air like an invisible exclamation point, leading into big, raucous, group movement. At other moments, the dancing flows like an undercurrent beneath the story: as Dora speaks of the horrific conditions in the first detention camp where she worked, Rivesaltes — “Unwashed bodies, fetid latrines, open wounds, and the barracks,” she explains — the performers stand staggered over the stage, swaying softly and bathed in low light.
What remains constant throughout is the startlingly powerful juxtaposition of the dancers’ agility and agency over their own bodies in the midst of a tale that is so much about people deprived of theirs (all of those detained and deported, plus Dora’s sister, who died of a failed abortion).
This is accompanied by an equally inspiring resonance between choreography and text: so much of the movement here happens in pairs or larger groups, with dancers holding, lifting, catching, or simply touching one another. Their connectedness seems to amplify Dora’s work of trying to help people in the camps and the resilient spirit of community that persists in her tale, despite the constant specters of war and extermination.
The payoff of “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane” comes when dance and narrative play off each other, combining the pain of existence and the pleasure of imagination into some kind of postmodern gold. These moments are helped by a fantastic score and performances by Nick Hallett, who sets Schubert to an at times chilling techno beat and sings French songs with an incredible sense of ownership. There were times when the dancing and the music open up Dora’s story into something larger than memory and words. If Jones’ fantastic telling of Amelan’s story makes a return trip to the Triad, I’d make it a priority to experience this wonderful foray in postmodern dance.