Bill T. Jones connects three disparate lives in his ‘Analogy’ trilogy
Bill T. Jones has never wanted for ambition. Formed in 1982, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company addressed racism, gender politics, and dance as a performance art that’s not necessarily silent. Zane died in 1988, but Jones has since become a MacArthur Fellow, a Kennedy Center honoree, a two-time Tony Award winner, and the artistic director of New York Live Arts. And the company has continued on in works like “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land” (1990), “Still/Here” (1994), and “Story/Time” (2012). On Feb. 14-17, the Institute of Contemporary Art will present Jones’s “Analogy” trilogy (2015–2017), a meditation on meaning and memory that incorporates text, music, movement, and video.
“Analogy/Dora: Tramontane” (Feb. 14) focuses on Jones’s mother-in-law, Dora Amelan, who was a nurse and social worker in Vichy France during World War II. “Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist” (Feb. 15) looks at the life of Jones’s nephew, Lance T. Briggs, a model, performer, and drug addict. (Jones brought a related work, “Letter to My Nephew,” to the ICA when he was last here, in November 2016.) And “Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” (Feb. 16-17) was inspired by the novels of 20th-century German writer W.G. Sebald, specifically the segment of “The Emigrants” in which the narrator’s great-uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, becomes the traveling companion of American aviator Cosmo Solomon before giving way to depression and dying in a mental institution. Jones spoke to the Globe about the origins of his trilogy and what “Analogy” means to him.
Q. Did “Analogy” start out to be a trilogy?
A. Well, I had been reading a lot of wonderful literature about 13 or 14 years ago, and I was directed toward W.G. Sebald’s series of books. “The Emigrants” was maybe one of the first I read, and I was much struck with it, particularly the story of Ambros Adelwarth, because I’m a fan of this sort of historical fiction rooted in strong characters. It felt very real for me as a person in middle age trying to be truthful and wondering about the nature of truth. Sebald used his history in such a way that at times you wonder what is fiction and what is fact. So it started with Ambros Adelwarth.
Q. But “Analogy” begins with Dora.
A. Yes, around the same time, I was reviewing an oral history with Dora Amelan I had done as a gift to my husband [Bjorn Amelan, the company’s creative director]. She was 19 years old when the Nazis marched into Antwerp. She and her sisters escaped, and she became involved with a Jewish organization, one part of which was underground. She began to work at one of these holding camps the Vichy government set up with the Germans, and she has a very powerful story to tell about what it means to be a young Jewish woman trying to understand who she was and what was a meaningful life when the whole world was crazy.
And I was trying to do both Dora and Sebald — he has a natural affinity for the time period, the European point of view. But they are so rich that I realized I should deal with one at a time. Dora Amelan was visiting us twice a year, the stories were continuing to pour out of her, and I felt quite privileged to be sitting across from a piece of history that was someone I loved. So we began with Dora first, putting Ambros on the back burner.
Q. And after that?
A. The next one seemed to be staring me in the face, my young nephew, Lance T. Briggs. I keep calling him my “young” nephew — he’s a man who’s almost 50 years old now, but in my mind he’s still the vivacious and troubled 18-year-old that I had known years ago, and he was washed up on a far shore of life, having had this exciting life as a model, a dancer, and then addiction to crack cocaine, and a sex worker. And we were talking once a week, and he told me that he wanted to tell the absolute truth about his life, that he had lived this shadow life since he was quite a young boy. And therefore he was the second one in the trilogy.
Q. Does “Analogy” represent a new direction in dance, or is it just a different performance genre?
A. Well, my work has always been multidisciplinary, if that’s what you mean. On one level it’s trying to deepen something that I’ve been interested in a long time in how text, movement, song, décor are all greater than the sum of their parts, and this work is a meditation on all of those things. I think I’ve never made anything quite like it, and quite frankly I haven’t seen anything quite like it.
Q. What kind of challenge was this for the dancers?
A. I told Nick Hallett [the trilogy’s composer] that I really wanted my company to sing. And he was a bit skeptical; he’s a professional singer, and he didn’t think that these dancers had the ear. And it’s true, it’s been a struggle getting people who are not thinking about pitch to actually understand pitch, and to understand text. These people had already been indoctrinated into a system that would have them pick up the microphone and then speak the language of an 85-year-old French-Jewish woman. So they had to learn about her phrasing, her imagery. They had to channel Lance T. Briggs, a young inner-city man who was their age somewhere in the late ’80s, the ’90s.
And then they had to learn about Ambros Adelwarth and my love for literature. They had to learn what it was about this novel that inspired me to try to make a performance out of it. The first cast — it’s now 50 percent changed, but the first cast was required to read the novel. I find it a very interesting and tasty reading, but for many of them it was just flowery language. They’re not very much interested in literary metaphors or poetic allusions, not to mention the historical references that Sebald is such a master of. But they had to do it for the sake of the choreography.
Q. And finally, what is the “Analogy” of the title?
A. It’s analogy about a comparison. But I don’t tell the audience what is being compared. If they see all three pieces, I think it becomes ever more clear what is actually the subject of the piece. I sometimes say “Analogy” is about the nature of a life, or what is a life well lived, or what is a meaningful life. I don’t tell you what I think, but I give you an opportunity to look at how I’ve drawn the portraits, and that tells you something about what I think about these three lives, and therefore justifies their being compared. I would encourage people to try to see all three sections of the piece if they could. I think it will be quite rewarding.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company: Analogy Trilogy
“Analogy/Dora: Tramontane” Feb. 14, “Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist” Feb. 15, “Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” Feb. 16-17. At Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Tickets $30-$40, 617-478-3103, www.icaboston.org