FEATURE: Requiem for a Heartbeat

By on July 12, 2017

Bill T. Jones and company deliver art that underscores humanity’s unifying struggles.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – For Babs Case, director of Dancers’ Workshop, one moment from a Jackson Hole rehearsal with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company last year has stuck with her. The company members were stretching and warming up on stage while Jones and Case chatted in the wings. Tall and lithe with chiseled lines on his face, Jones is an affable man, accessible despite his immense fame as a legendary contemporary dancer and choreographer.

But his warmth is tempered with precision and toughness.

Case watched as the young dancers, clad in T-shirts and sweatpants, stretched and leaped playfully, laughing and enjoying the easy movement of their bodies. Suddenly, Jones stopped talking with Case and gruffly addressed his company.

“Everyone,” he said, “I want you to leave this room. You will go around backstage and come in the other door. When you come in, you are ready to work.”

The dancers snapped to attention and filed out of the room, returning a few moments later, focused and ready for instruction.

Case says Jones’s ability to jolt people into the present moment is one of his gifts. “He will take things and shock people a little so their attention is right there.”

What Jones’s dancers experience in rehearsal is indeed similar to what audiences experience watching the company’s multimedia performances. Often, your heart is in your throat, your mind stretching to decipher the various incoming information–dance, video, music, spoken word. Dance theater, after all, is a language that can take you inside human experience in nonliteral ways. But to interpret the language you must be fully present in the moment.

For the past three years, Jackson audiences have witnessed the development of some of the most innovative choreography in the world. Jones’s Analogy trilogy, for which Dancers’ Workshop is a co-commissioning organization, explores the lives of three very different people to tell an overarching story of striving in the face of adversity, and of the delicate balance between serving others and retaining one’s self.

By linking the stories of these characters through abstract concepts like movement, shape, and line, Jones challenges viewers to think and feel in unfamiliar ways. Accept the challenge, and your understanding of the human experience will expand.

Jones and his company’s 2017 residency includes a master class on July 18, a company appearance at the Dancers’ Workshop gala celebration July 19, an open rehearsal on July 20, and two world premiere performances of Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant on July 21 and 22. To prepare for these shows, readers should consider reading the book that inspired the Analogy trilogy—The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald.

While the themes of Analogy are broad and universal, they are simultaneously specific and personal to Jones. The 65-year-old choreographer, director, dancer and writer has been utilizing personal material—including his own body—as a means of exploring large human themes since he first arrived on the New York dance scene in the 1970s. He’s been punching through boundaries ever since, and to immense acclaim. The New York Times called Jones “inarguably the most broadly laureled” figure in the dance world. His intense focus on bringing people into the present moment is a lesson that can be applied to many spheres of life.

Magnetized to the present

Jones, whose awards include a National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor, Tony Awards, a Dorothy & Lillian Gish Prize, and a MacArthur Fellowship, is undoubtedly a big noise. But what interests him is human conversation, not didactic bellowing.

During a visit to Jackson Hole in 2016, Jones met with a group of students from Summit High School. He explained that the company was presenting a work that dealt with gender, sexuality, and addiction (the second piece in the trilogy, Analogy/ Lance: Pretty a.k.a. the Escape Artist). Two students on the periphery began to snicker. Jones kept talking while the two students continued their whispered banter. Dancers’ Workshop director Babs Case remembers being impressed with how Jones handled the situation.

“He stopped and looked at them,” Case said. “He asked them if they were with us. Then he told them, ‘I want you to be present with us.’”

Akin to the message he sent to his dancers, this is the invitation Jones issues to all his audiences. “Bill addresses things through art that could be confrontational,” she said. “But he is not asking you to have the same opinion. He is asking you to be present in the same conversation.”

The Analogy “conversation” began four years ago with the inception of the first trilogy segment Dora: Tramontane. The piece explored the life of Dora Amelan, the mother of Jones’s partner Bjorn Amelan. Jones incorporates text from his oral history with Dora into the dance. A French Jewish nurse and social worker, Dora survived the Holocaust and worked at an underground Jewish organization in Vichy France’s internment camps. Tramontane is the French word for a disturbing wind.

The second part of the trilogy, Analogy/Lance: Pretty Boy a.k.a. the Escape Artist, debuted last summer. In it, the company delves into the life of Jones’s nephew, Lance Briggs, a dancer and model that has struggled with drug addiction, sexual exploitation, and AIDS. As with Dora, Jones utilized transcripts from interviews with Lance as elements of the overall performance.

Jackson audiences have been privy to a major shift for the Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Company. The word “dance” has been taken out of the company name. Though strongly rooted in Jones’s iconic choreography—energetic, athletic, formally precise—the company’s work has become so collaborative as to warrant a different title. Text, spoken word, set design, lighting, music and singing are interwoven with dancing to such an extent that a hybrid form has been born.

The company’s associate artistic director Janet Wong says this hybrid is indicative of the present moment in dance and performance.

“Nowadays the boundaries of dance and theater and music are so fluid,” Wong said. “I think getting rid of the word ‘dance’ was perfect. But at the same time, our work is embodied, just as human experience in world is embodied.”

Jones says tasking the performers with acting and singing in addition to dancing deepens the development of the ensemble. “Each performer is an artist, and individual growth is collective growth,” he said in his director’s notes about Ambros.

The final trilogy segment departs from Jones’s personal life to probe the life of the fictional character Ambros Adelwarth, the title character from a section of Sebald’s novel The Emigrants. Adelwarth is a manservant to a wealthy young Jewish scion, Cosmo Solomon. Adelwarth was hired by Cosmo’s father to accompany the young man in his escapades around the globe, gambling and flying planes. The relationship between Adelwarth and his charge is rife with innuendo, and seemingly the years the two men spend together are the most intimate of each man’s life.

However, World War I haunts their lives; the glamour and excess of upper crust Europeans juxtaposed with the continent’s turmoil. Personal depression, isolation, madness all play a part, as Adelwarth’s tale is told through the memories of his relatives, pieced together by the narrator who goes in search of his mysterious uncle’s life story. So total was Ambros’s embrace of his role as manservant and butler that one of his relatives comments, “I always felt sorry for [Ambros] because he could never, his whole life long, permit anything to ruffle his composure.”

In his director’s notes, Jones recommends that audiences view the performance as they would a Cubist painting. “We show an object spatially from various perspectives,” he said. “The choreography, musical composition, storytelling, and design elements are folded into a work that resembles origami, reopened and refolded again.”

Jones told PJH motifs from Dora and Lance will appear again in Ambros.

“The piece is complicated and complex,” he said. “It asks us to see it differently.” As with the first two segments of the trilogy, repeated viewings will enhance audiences’ understanding of the piece. “You don’t have to grasp it all in one viewing,” Jones said. “See it more than once.”
He also recommends reading The Emigrants, or at least the section about Ambros Adelwarth. (Copies are available at Valley Bookstore.) This distinction between emigrant and immigrant is something the ensemble has explored. Jones says it comes down to who is speaking and is an essential question for our era.

“Are you looking at the person who comes from elsewhere, the immigrant?” Jones asked. “Or are you the emigrant looking at your new country?”

Playing with form

In The Emigrants, Sebald provided a model to Jones by blurring the lines between fiction, memoir, dream diary, and recorded text. In Ambros Adelwarth, the point of view shifts without breaking from character to character, from present to past, from fact to fiction. Sebald included biographical elements in his text, namely photos that illustrate certain passages. The photos appear to be snapshots from a family album. Are they Sebald’s? Or are they a pastiche of found pieces added into the text for effect? Are the photos elements of truth or of fiction?

Jones, too, incorporates disparate expressive elements into the overall performance. In the past two trilogy episodes, Jones used transcripts from interviews with family members, read live by dancers on stage, as a way of interjecting personal narrative into the larger themes explored. Thus form and movement bump up against narrative and text. Abstraction collides with representation. A single person’s story—Dora’s or Lance’s  or Ambros’s—becomes multifaceted, as if viewers were looking through a kaleidoscope at a person’s life.

Reflecting on the addition of text and spoken word to the dance pieces, Case said the addition of language does not plainly elucidate the work. “The language creates another layer through which we have to look to see the real story or purpose,” she said. “The transcripts from Dora’s recollections were presented very literally. But memory is always so nebulous—what is imagined or made up, real or actual?”

Ultimately making art, especially experimental, avant-garde performance work, is as much about interpersonal dynamics and what each individual brings to the table (or the rehearsal space) as it is about the subject matter. The art emerges from the relationships between people, how they nurture and support one another, how they challenge and drive one another. This is perhaps the most remarkable story within the story of a world-class choreographer and his company and their four years of developing work in residency in a small mountain town in Wyoming.

Case grew emotional when discussing the impact of Jones’s work in the community.

“I’m so honored that he has been here,” she said. “He’s such an important artist. Watching him work has had a tremendous impact on me; his willingness to be so bold, and to be demanding of his dancers. But also I’ve learned so much just by talking with him. Now everybody here knows who he is and what he is about. That has been really rewarding to share that with our community.”

The respect flows both ways. Jones calls Case “a force of nature.”

“The fact that Babs Case is in Jackson Hole is something to be celebrated,” he said.

Wong agreed. When asked about what has made the Jackson Hole residencies unique, Wong said the main difference has been Case herself. “Babs is the most wonderful person I know,” Wong said. “She understands making work; she is an artist herself. She is so generous and kind, and bad ass at the same time.”

Case is one of the arts community’s staunchest advocates for importing artists for valley residencies. The value of such residencies, she said, is immediately apparent: “The relationships that are made, drawing people in and nurturing connections between artists, plus the general access that our community has to minds and hearts like this,” she said. “We feel the impact of Bill’s work and the way he speaks to people.”

Case remembered a talk Jones gave at a Jackson donor event last year. “He said that art is as important as hospitals and roads,” she remembered. “Art is important for our souls.”

At that same talk, Jones challenged a mostly affluent audience to think about how they could put their privilege to work in the service of art. “What do you think about?” Jones asked the well-heeled group. Then he gestured to Case. “This woman is putting tremendous effort into creating new work. She is looking for the next Balanchine, the next Thomas Moran. If we don’t invest in that as people, then we listen to the same music, see the same paintings, watch the same dance. She deserves an army of support.”

Dancing toward empathy

Rehearsal director for Contemporary Dance Wyoming Francesca Romo values the opportunity to engage in an open dialogue with artists at such an intimate level. In addition to his work in the community, Jones has offered open rehearsals during each residency that include a talk-back session with him and the dancers. Though the issues discussed are sometimes uncomfortable, Romo said, “We are listening and learning, and this is invaluable.”

A co-founder of New York City-based Gallim Dance and now a Jackson resident, Romo said that not only has Jackson Hole witnessed the development of a process and the final stages of a piece, the community has also become involved at the ground level. “Perhaps the work becomes very much more personal when watching the finished production,” she said.

The performing arts in particular have a way of eliciting empathy between people, Wong said. These layers of empathy and connection—between DW artists and visiting artists, as well as between audiences and characters portrayed on stage— provide a necessary balm in the face of political and social turmoil.

“With all the fights in Washington and on the streets, change has to happen inside the individual,” Wong said. “Art and culture has to help cultivate this change.”

For Jones, taking risks, making human connections, finding new ways of understanding the human experience is what being an artist is all about. “What else is there?” he said. “I am successful, but I’m still a young turk. I still see myself as an experimental artist. I don’t have formulas. I’m still asking, ‘Maybe I should try this?’ and ‘What if?’”

What if such an artist married the disparate stories of a Holocaust survivor, a dancer-turned-addict, and a buttoned up butler into a suite of performances about what it means to suffer, hope, and survive? What if, indeed. PJH

Dancers’ Workshop presents Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant, 8 p.m. July 21 and 22 at the Center for the Arts. Tickets are
$45-$55, $25 for students at the Center box office.

About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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