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Bill T. Jones’s Slow Dance Through History

‘You like them kosher, don’t you, Bill?” Edith Zane observed when she learned that her late son’s partner, the African-American dancer Bill T. Jones, had taken up with another Jew. Jones recalls this conversation drily, not bothered by the teasing. She was right about his predilections.

“There’s no accident that I’ve had three major loves, and two have been with Jewish men,” the Tony Award-winning choreographer now says.

“‘What do you love about them?’” he says a Jewish colleague once asked him. “‘Do you like the pain — the pain of Jews?’ And I thought, well, yeah, in a way. Jews understand something that blacks understand. The Jews wrote the Old Testament and black folks set it to music. That’s a joke, in a way, but if you think about the stories being told — struggle, slavery, all those things from the Old Testament — black people heard them and retrofitted them to their experience. Who is the more deserving victim? That is a thankless conversation. These people and their experience are profound for me. The survivor aspect of it is profound.”

Jones’s first love, Arnie Zane, burst onto the scene with him in the 1970s, and their unconventional partnership helped to define post-modern dance. Zane died in 1988, but his name remains part of Jones’s troupe. Inspired by its founders’ example, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is a diverse community embodying the hope that America may yet become a more inclusive society. Jones’s avant-garde dance-theater put him on the cover of Time magazine long before he triumphed on Broadway with “Spring Awakening” and “Fela!”

Jones’s current partner, whom he married last July, is the Israeli-born scenic designer, Bjorn G. Amelan. They met in Paris, in 1993, when both were struggling to come to terms with the loss of their partners to AIDS. Jones and Amelan work together, too, collaborating to create visually elegant yet provocative spectacles like the 2006 production “Blind Date,” which questioned the value of patriotism during the Iraq War, and “Story/Time,” a tribute to John Cage and Merce Cunningham, in 2012.

An Unexpected Muse: Jones took the
inspiration for his dance ‘Analogy/Dora: Tramontane’ from the memoirs of his partner’s mother. Image by Christina Lane/Eric Politzer

Like “Blind Date” and “Story/Time,” Jones’s latest project has been co-commissioned by the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, an innovative performing arts presenter in New Jersey that has helped to incubate his ideas. “I told Bill, ‘This is a safe place for you to do the work that scares you. This is a safe creative environment to go further,’” says Jedediah Wheeler, the executive director for arts and cultural programming at Montclair. Yet the new piece represents an unexpected detour for Jones, whose dances are often based in conundrums of the American experience. “This is a story about love,” Wheeler says.

“Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” as the new piece is called, is set amid a 20th-century Europe shattered by war and racism. Based on the memories of Amelan’s mother, Dora, who as a teenage refugee from Nazi-occupied Belgium found herself working for a children’s aid society in France, “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane” takes us to a shadowy place where identities become fluid, and brave individuals do whatever they can to stall the deportations. Small acts of kindness, Dora’s native optimism, and luck all helped her to survive, as Jews under the Vichy regime were interned in squalid camps at Gurs and Rivesaltes. The dance will receive its world premiere in Montclair, with performances on June 18-21 in the university’s Alexander Kasser Theater; Dora Amelan, now 95, will be in the audience.

Dora Amelan is a widow living in Paris now, where another son works for UNESCO. On a recent afternoon, however, she appeared at the garden table outside the home her eldest shares with his husband in Valley Cottage, New York. When I met her, she wore a print blouse with a loose necklace of polished stones. Sitting erect, she has a soft-spoken manner, but a piercing intelligence. She is prepared to discuss the latest review of Oliver Sacks’s autobiography, and the treatment of Muslims in France. “The attitude toward the Arabs is very bad, and we pay for it,” she says.

Dora Amelan is enchanted with her son-in-law, saying, “As soon as I knew him we became friends, no problem,” and she adds that she “adores” his choreography. Asked about the state of the world today, she replies, “I am worried more than afraid. Once you use the word ‘fear’ you are lost. That’s important. When I hear all the precautions taken now, to try to avoid the Muslim jihad, it’s very bad. To be afraid is the worst thing you can do.”

Despite knee and back troubles, she plays an active role in her sons’ lives. Jones, seated nearby at the table says, “In the early days of my knowing her, she would often fly to spend time with us when we were in Rome, or Vienna. It would be an excuse for us to get together.”

“She always was interested in my work,” he adds. “She is a politically-minded woman, and with a great love for culture. She could ask serious questions about what it was like to be a black person in America. She could ask about, and comment on gay relationships.”

Just as important as their conversation, however, was the love that she extended to her son’s companion. “My mother had died in 2002,” Jones says, “so to have this new woman come in, who says, ‘I love you and I’m proud of you’ — she was the mother I needed.” And although Dora Amelan is a practical woman, who made a career as a social worker and a nurse, “there’s a secret dancer in Dora,” Jones says. Relaxing at home, he has been known to sweep his mother-in-law off her feet while his companion cooks dinner. “Bjorn says that’s one of his favorite memories — turning and seeing me and Dora doing a slow, sensual dance in the living room. I think she loves my spontaneity,” Jones says.

Dora Amelan’s life, of course, was not always so carefree. As the family gathered around the Amelans’ dinner table in Paris, Jones heard stories about the war. “The Amelans are extremely gregarious, and they love to talk,” Jones says. “They talk to each other, and they talk at each other and over each other. They have strong opinions. So it was really something to sit around a table and listen. Of course the specter of the war was always there, because Dora really came into her consciousness as a 19-year-old, making up in her mind that there are two types of people: those who need help, and those who give help. And she swore she would always be in the second category, of those who give help.”

Fascinated by her tales of hair-breadth escapes, the plight of those waiting for permission to cross borders, and the moral quandaries of workers with the French Children’s Aid Society, which sometimes could save children only by sacrificing adults, Jones decided to conduct a series of oral history interviews with his mother-in-law. When these interviews began, more than a decade ago, he had no thoughts of turning them into a performance piece, but merely wished to leave them as a gift to her sons.

Analogy/Dora: The choreography evokes notions of social responsibility and activism. Image by Christina Lane/Eric Politzer

The idea of making a dance piece based on these memoirs only came to Jones a couple of years ago, as he began to contemplate a different work based on W.G. Sebald’s novel “The Emigrants.” World War II had left its scars on Sebald’s fictional characters, and suddenly it dawned on Jones: “I had a Dora Amelan sitting right across the table from me.” His plans grew more complex, and he now intends this month’s premiere, “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” to be the first part of a triptych of “Analogy” pieces concerned with activism and social responsibility.

Translating Dora’s experiences into dance-theater required some editing, but her own words supply the narrative thread; the dancers take turns with a microphone re-enacting interviews. Noting that the members of his young company are close to Dora’s age during the war, Jones says, “I wanted them up close to the person she was, when she had to decide how she was going to live during that war. I wanted them to feel what it was like to be the sister of someone who made another decision and ended up dying, to be the daughter of someone who lost everything. I wanted them to see what everyday heroism looked like.”

Image by Christina Lane/Eric Politzer

Bjorn Amelan has designed the set for “Analogy/Dora” from simple elements. The dancers re-arrange three cut-out panels, like puzzle pieces, to create buildings and street corners where individuals loiter nervously and lovers embrace. The performers also use pipes to assemble a rectangular frame suggesting a barracks or a railroad car. While these structures can be confining, the dancers pass through them freely. This is “the space of memory,” the designer explains, a ghostly architecture of the mind.

Typically the dance movement does not have a literal meaning, but becomes suggestive in relation to the words and music. Nick Hallett’s original score becomes entwined with popular music of the 1930s, and Schubert’s lieder. When three women huddle together, it’s easy to imagine they are Dora and her sisters. Viewers may interpret in various ways the persistent movement of dancers rocking back-and-forth. Some may see the indecision of people on the run, while others will see people trapped with no way to flee; the rocking of the trains packed with deportees; sleepers tossing restlessly; or even the bowing of Jews at prayer. “That’s the game, isn’t it?” Jones asks. “Abstraction can become a lot of things in terms of context and how it’s performed.”

Image by Christina Lane/Eric Politzer

Jones and his mother-in-law have a lot in common, from their personal discipline to their inquiring minds. Yet his own experiences as a black man in America, and his explorations of identity in dance did not prepare him for Dora Amelan’s response to her wartime ordeal.

“Whenever I spoke to Dora, I could not locate anger,” Jones says.

“There was none,” she answers. “Why should I be angry because the others are bad?”

“That’s what’s beautiful,” Jones concludes. “That’s what I hope will come out in the piece we have. Dora showed me a vision of how to live in the face of an unfair world, but do it with openness, optimism, and resilience.”

Robert Johnson is a freelance dance writer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertJ26215165

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