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Review: The power of memory shines through in Bill T. Jones' remembrance of things past and present

Review: The power of memory shines through in Bill T. Jones' remembrance of things past and present
Bill T. Jones' "Analogy/Lance: a.k.a. Pretty the Escape Artist" at Royce Hall, UCLA, Sunday (Reed Hutchinson /CAP UCLA)

“The sun has an appointment with the moon.”

That is how a Jewish Belgian teenager, Dora Amelan, described her world turned upside down by the invasion by Nazi Germany in 1940. It is also, in one way or another, the essence of displacement felt by emigrants, for whom memories of one world remain in constant arbitration with those of another. Though often a prescription for success, forgetfulness isn't always an option. Ghosts get in the way.

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The sun’s appointment comes early but lasts long in Bill T. Jones’ “Analogy Trilogy,” given its Los Angeles premiere by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA in two marathon performances Saturday and Sunday in Royce Hall (I attended the second). Three stories of displacement caused by war and/or society are painstakingly excavated from seemingly trustworthy memory. They’re interpreted through a combination of dance, spoken narrative, music and a touch of video. But imaginative, expressive and, when needed, exalted dance by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company remains primary.

The three parts are given over a nearly seven-hour span, broken up by a 45-minute intermission and a 90-minute dinner break. The first, “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” is based on Jones interviewing his octogenarian mother-in-law about her World War II experiences, which included working with the Jewish underground at the Gurs and Rivesaltes Vichy French internment camps near the Spanish border.

In “Analogy/Lance: Pretty a.k.a. the Escape Artist,” Jones confronts his nephew, Lance T. Biggs. Like his uncle, Lance is a talented dancer, African American and gay. But unlike his uncle, who came from a large family of migrant farmworkers in Florida and who rose to become one of today’s leading American performing artists, Lance left ballet school early, seduced by drugs and the nightlife of the 1980s and 1990s; that led to prison and, through his physical abuse, paralysis from the waist down.

The third part, finished last year, “Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant,” is taken from a chapter in W.G. Sebald’s “The Emigrants.” A uniquely illuminating excavation of haunted figures from the narrator’s past, it explores with a touch of exceptional lightness the weight of memory.

“Memory,” Sebald concludes in writing about the narrator’s mysterious Great-Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, “makes one’s head heavy and giddy.” It is as though we are looking down on Earth from “one of the towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.” It is Jones’ arresting innovation to make the dancers personify that lost memory, continually gesturing upward but unable to fully reach us above the clouds

This company of nine dancers accomplishes any number of unexpected things, including narration and singing. Jones has said that he no longer considers the group, which he founded with Arnie Zane in 1982 and which he has headed since Zane’s death six years later — a dance company. Instead, the ensemble is devoted to performance in the broadest sense.

He has also put increasing attention on collaboration. “Analogy/Trilogy” is co-credited to the company’s associate artistic director, Janet Wong. The performers have a say in their work. The music, which shifts from Schubert to disco and much in between, is credited to multi-instrumentalist Nick Hallett, who is joined by a pianist and baritone. The spare décor — a mattress, a rectangular frame, moveable walls against a bare stage — is by Bjorn Amelan, Dora’s Amelan’s son and Jones’ husband.

But the fact is, Jones remains a choreographer, and the dancers, dancers. Most of all, the vision is clearly Jones’. The interviews with Dora Amelan are spoken by continually shifting dancers in a marvelous fluidity that belies the shared hesitancy of Dora and Jones.

Dora worked with the Vichy government to help children, and many lives were saved. But when the Nazis demanded quotas of prisoners to be sent to concentration camps, she was forced to select adults to take the place of children. Jones asks if that is collaboration. Dora says no, but it’s the most awful sort of cooperation. She saved more lives this way, but she suffered the anguish of having to decide who would live and who would die. Every dancer was Dora, seeking to hold on to others but torn apart.

“Lance” is Jones’ own moral dilemma. He shows himself at a loss to know how to help his nephew, but he is at no loss in knowing how to re-create the heady world of gay clubs in the days before and during the AIDS crisis. Lance has star potential, but he also has a split personality — Lance and alter ego Pretty. He becomes a hustler and a victim, always on the verge of putting his life and career back together and never losing his endearing sweetness.

“On one planet, love is unconditional, and on the other, it is not,” Lance observes at the end of his own sun and moon.

Finally, the extraordinary Ambros. After all the glitter of Lance, Jones brings us the extreme elegance of this Jewish German émigré , who in the years before World War I becomes the companion of the eccentric son of a wealthy New York Jewish banker. Cosmos too is a remarkable figure beguiled by the grand life.

Ambros and Cosmos travel the world in high style, financed by Cosmos’ uncanny skill in gambling. They traverse Turkey and Jerusalem, intoxicated by exotica. Their sun, though, is about to be obliterated as well. After WWI, Cosmos can no longer bear his existence. After World War II, it is the requisite of Ambros, who never lost his façade for being the perfect gentleman, for oblivion.

All three segments are structured piecemeal. The audience slowly puts the narrative together through clues, spoken and danced. “Ambros” is the most straightforward and the most given to song. This turns out to be a stretch for the company, and the musical style here becomes more conventional than any other element of the performance.

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The music’s recompense is that it leaves room for the other elements to offer a sumptuous surface of exceptional sophistication and grace. The costumes, so garish for Lance, now clothe the dancers in dazzling white pantaloons and tops. As were Cosmos and Ambros, the viewer is swept away. But under it all is the torment that the travelogue is as fragile as celluloid and that it will vanish.

“Adelwarth had an infallible memory,” Sebald concludes in his story, but “scarcely allowed himself access to it.” Over the course of an afternoon and an evening, Jones momentously reveals that the disquiet in memory is, on some level, universal and that we are all emigrants.

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