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Taking testimony from a Holocaust survivor and turning it into a dance is an intriguing but risky proposition, especially if you’re not a Jew. 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. Still/Here, a 1994 work prompted by the death of his longtime partner, Arnie Zane, from AIDS, featured dancers from his and Zane’s company alongside video and audio footage of interviews that Jones conducted with terminally ill people — for which it occasioned a firestorm when The New Yorker‘s dance critic, Arlene Croce, wrote a piece laying out her refusal to see or review it. “By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism,” Croce wrote then (to swift rebuke from other writers and critics).
But Jones is not a journalist or a historian, and his artworks are not “reportage,” as he pointed out after a performance of his newest piece — the one based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor — on Saturday night. A commission of Peak Performances at Montclair State University, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane uses stories of World War II told by the Jewish Dora Amelan (the mother of Jones’s current husband, Bjorn Amelan) to the choreographer during a series of interviews as “material” for a piece that Jones positions firmly in the “postmodern tradition. … What can we do with it?”
The answer turns out to be both a lot and not enough. Analogy/Dora: Tramontane features the members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company speaking aloud parts of the oral history conversations — telling Dora’s stories of working as a nurse and social worker in detention camps in occupied Vichy France — while they dance. The dynamics of this are ever changing. Toward 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 effortlessly; 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 Shayla-Vie Jenkins’s lifting and spinning a male partner while reciting her lines.
The relationship between physical movement and narrative shifts, too. At times, the dancers almost literally act out Dora’s tales — as when she tells of a husband and wife holding hands before being separated by a deportation, and a male and a female dancer enter the stage to do so. Other times, 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 yet others, 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 (I-Ling Liu and Erick Montes-Chavero stand out especially) in the midst of a tale that is so much about people dispossessed 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 seeming to amplify Dora’s work 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 alchemy of Analogy/Dora: Tramontane comes when dance and narrative play off each other, combining the pain of reality and the pleasure of imagination into some kind of postmodern gold. These moments are buoyed by a fantastic score and performances by Nick Hallett (accompanied by Emily Manzo), who sets Schubert to a techno beat and sings French chansons with incredible possession. There are times when the dancing and the music open up Dora’s story into something larger than memory and words.
Yet as the piece marches on (and the dancers’ outfits become more “old world”), it seems to cede itself to the singularity of Dora’s tale. The moments of glorious mash-up come fewer and farther between, and the choreography begins to feel like it’s playing a supporting role. (In the discussion afterwards, one audience member commented that she became so engrossed in the story, she almost forgot the performers were dancing; I found myself nodding in agreement.) The structure that at first worked so well — question, anecdote and dance, dance break — becomes frustratingly repetitive and tidy, culminating in an ending that feels both too abrupt and too cheesy.
Ultimately, however, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane does manage to expand the possibility of what this type of story might look like or become, even if it buckles under the pressure of its own task. “There is life, and there is performance,” said Dora during the conversation that followed the performance. We’re lucky to have Jones forever trying to figure out how they best relate.
The world premiere of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s Analogy/Dora: Tramontane took place June 18–21 at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University (Valley Road and Normal Ave, Montclair, New Jersey).
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the dancer who lifts and spins a male partner while reciting her lines. It has been fixed.