This year marks the sixth appearance of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company at Spoleto Festival USA. Much has changed for the company since its first Charleston performance. One thing that hasn’t is the constant innovation of Bill T. Jones’ work.
Since co-founding the company in 1982 with his late partner Arnie Zane, Jones has enjoyed an acclaimed career that has elevated him to the level of cultural icon. He’s received a host of prestigious honors for a diverse range of contributions, including a MacArthur “Genius” Award, a Kennedy Center Honor, the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award, and two Tony’s for Best Choreography, and that only scratches the surface. Jones also serves as artistic director of New York Live Arts, which acts as home base for his company and supports the professional development of artists.
While he’s best known for his work as a dancer and choreographer, Jones, now 67, doesn’t want to be limited by those terms.
He refers to himself more broadly as an artist exploring the juxtaposition and layering of different mediums. "Analogy Trilogy," the work his company presents at this year’s festival, deals directly with these interdisciplinary investigations.
“If you look at what I’ve made there, it’s hard to call it just dance, and that’s purposeful,” Jones said. “I’m trying to integrate (my) interests and get them to speak to each other in the hopes that something else will be born."
Comprised of three concert-length works, "Analogy Trilogy" uses movement, text, music, storytelling and architectural elements to explore narrative and psychological themes. The third piece of the trilogy, "Ambros: The Emigrant," centers on a fictional narrative inspired by W.G. Sebald's "The Emigrants," but the other two are framed by the experiences of individuals close to Jones. The second work, "Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist," follows his nephew’s trials with addiction, sex work and club culture in the 1980s and '90s, while "Dora: Tramontane" is based on years of interviews with Dora Amelan, the mother of his husband and long-time creative director Bjorn Amelan.
A French-Jewish nurse, Dora worked with underground Jewish organizations in Vichy France against the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. Jones originally began recording Dora’s oral history as a gift for her sons, but after he spawned the idea to create what would become "Analogy Trilogy," he chose her narratives — with Dora's, and the family’s, full support — as a more personal avenue to begin exploring the work.
As the creative director charged with conceptualizing the visual components of "Analogy Trilogy," Bjorn Amelan plays an integral role in a production to which he has a strong connection to the subject matter.
“Because the commonality of the work in my mind, and based on discussions with Bill, was memory, we decided that the set should be a connecting background of the work to live in,” Amelan said.
One of the defining pieces of the set for all three works is the light grey marley, a traditional floor covering for dance, hung from the rafters above the back of the stage that drapes to the floor and continues to the end of the apron, creating a look similar to a backdrop you would encounter in a photographer’s studio. The wings of the stage are pulled up to expose the barebones backstage space, creating a dream-like atmosphere.
“This space that floats in the black void is a bit like our memory,” Amelan says.
In addition to the marley “backdrop,” there are flats and a cube-like geometrical structure that are used to different ends throughout the trilogy in the same way movement themes are reworked and interwoven through each of the pieces.
The tendency to explore both the physical and psychological is an overarching motif for Jones, senior company member Jenna Riegel said.
“Within his work, even as just choreographic devices, you see this repurposing of material, and reframing and recontextualizing of material, and that to me is like a cubist idea of multifacetedness.” Riegel, who has been with the company since 2011, makes her second Spoleto Festival USA appearance in this program.
While the components of "Analogy Trilogy" were intended to be viewed sequentially, as a whole, audiences need not spend three nights in Memminger Auditorium. One of the productions can provide a satisfying taste of Jones' ambitious project. But seeing all three shows has its advantages, he said.
“It’s like taking and object and turning it around," Jones said. "If people see all three works, they see the potential in any one moment, because that moment can be turned 360 degrees. ... It is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Lily Watkins is a Charleston-based dancer, dance instructor and writer.