Master class

By on July 8, 2014

DW hosts contemporary dance legend.

Bill T. Jones

Bill T. Jones by Stephanie Berger.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – “Hello, Mr. Jones? This is the reporter calling from Jackson, Wyoming.”

I’d just rung the personal cell phone of esteemed American choreographer Bill T. Jones. A MacArthur Genius, Jones has been a major innovative force in contemporary dance for four decades. Accolades include being named “An Irreplaceable Dance Treasure” by the Dance Heritage Coalition, two Tony Awards and the 2005 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement.

“How exotic!” Jones replied. “Those mountains!”

His voice was warm and friendly. He instantly made the phone call seem like he was the one having an exciting, unusual experience rather than the writer from a small town interviewing an artistic giant. We fell into an easy rapport discussing his upcoming project that he and his company will be rehearsing at Dancers’ Workshop July 14 to 20.

By the end of the phone call, Jones had laid his heart bare about what art means to him, and I had revealed how deeply moved I’ve been by his work. I felt that I had a great conversation with a mentor instead of a 30-minute newspaper interview. This is no coincidence. Jones’ intuitive acumen at making personal connections and eliciting essential human stories from individuals is a key component of creating the intimate, soulful work that has earned him wide recognition.

Beyond hitchhiking across the state in the late 1960s, Jones has never spent time in Wyoming. Back then he was getting his start as a dancer and choreographer. In the 1970s, he co-founded the American Dance Asylum with Arnie Zane and Lois Welk. Then in 1982, he formed a dance company with Zane. Though Zane passed away in 1988, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company has retained its name – and its reputation for its own brand of energetic postmodern dance to narrative texts and postmodern music – ever since.

Now the executive artistic director of New York Live Arts, Jones still works closely with his company while also leading efforts to support American dance and movement-based artists.

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Antonio Brown, Talli Jackson, and I-Ling Liu from Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Photo by Lois Greenfield.

Breaking barriers 

Dancers’ Workshop director Babs Case has wanted to invite Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company to Jackson for years, and this past year, funding and logistics made it possible. DW has brought a number of noted national dance companies to town to workshop their latest works and interact with the community. Case saw that Jones’ new project, which is based on emigrant stories, could create lively discussions in Jackson.

“Bill T. Jones is looking at very personal memoirs,” Case said. “But I think we all face similar challenges as human beings.”

The memoirs in question arise from Jewish survivors of World War II and the Holocaust. One is from Dora Amelan, the 94-year-old mother of Jones’ life partner, Bjorn Amelan, who survived the war and has shared her recollections with Jones.

The other memoir is from the quasi-fictional character Ambros Adelwarth in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. These narratives serve as the basis for Jones’ exploration of notions of personal identity, duty, love, belief and the instinct for survival. The current working title of the piece is Analogy, and in it, the dancers suggest the process of memory through their bodies and voices. In addition to choreography, the company will be practicing and exploring gestures, reading text, moveable set pieces, and live music while in Jackson.

“When we watch another artist’s process, it feeds our own processes,” said Case. “My goal is to bring these incredible artists here and then create access for other artists living here.”

Case believes that something unique can be achieved when a national artist visits a smaller community like Jackson. “There is an intimacy between people that happens here more quickly,” she said. “Personal barriers get broken down.”

Case and her DW team strive to make the resident artists’ experience as immersive and community oriented as possible. When she picks up the company at the airport, Case will bring her big, furry dog Zeppo along.

“I like to convey that we know and respect who you are as an artist, and we also know you are a human being.”

Resident artists are loaned bikes for getting around town, and taken on picnic hikes and to casual dinners. Throughout the week, the idea of what it means to be an artist gets demystified, and participants in workshops and open rehearsals focus on the work being performed. Artists find common ground across skill and background through the work itself.

Discovering universality is a core theme in Analogy. Jones stresses that the dance is not necessarily meant to be a World War II story, nor a Holocaust story. Instead, he said, the dance is “the response of one artist to the story of an individual from that era.”

Jones is not inhibited to share his explorative process.

“I am trying to understand what it is in Dora’s narrative that is so compelling to me, and what can be a reflective surface” for creating the dance, he said.

Emerging themes include action under duress, specificity of ethnic origins, courage, and even lightness of spirit.

“We are demonstrating memory,” Jones said. “If we are too tight about the specificity of Dora’s story, then we miss something that is more fascinating. She is evoking something that transcends our time.”

Lately, Jones has been fascinated with a term he learned from Dora that may become a central theme. The term, “tramontane,” is the French word for a disturbing wind. It can also mean anything that is beyond the mountains. Anything exotic or foreign, from elsewhere.

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Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company perform in Body Against Body. Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Makeshift community residence

Jones said the initial text for Analogy came from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and specifically the character Ambros Adelwarth. However, of late, Jones has been focused on Dora’s memoir. Sebald’s book, and its theme of emigration, will be the focus of “Then & Now, Us & Them,” a Jackson-wide community project during the company’s residence. A collaboration between Dancers’ Workshop and local writer Matt Daly, “Then & Now, Us & Them,” includes a book discussion, responses to open rehearsals, and an interactive art space.

The discussion of The Emigrants takes place on Monday at 6 p.m. at the library. Led by Daly, the discussion will include writing exercises. The result will be paragraph-length stories, micro-memoirs, based on significant experiences in the participants’ lives.

On Wednesday, July 16, and Friday, July 18, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company welcome the public to their open rehearsals, held 4:30 to 6 p.m. on the Center Stage. Audience members will be encouraged to use the rehearsals as fodder for personal creative responses to Analogy’s themes. The responses can come in the form of micro-memoirs, 2D images of a defining place, or a soundscape. Responses from the public will then be incorporated into shared public creative space in the Theater Lobby at Center for the Arts.

This “Creative Community Residence” will be comprised of a marked-out space on the floor with a moveable wall and moveable furniture that can be reorganized and re-imagined to create a temporary “residence.” You can hang out for an hour, have a meeting, eat lunch. The moveable walls are similar to walls Jones has incorporated in Analogy. All micro-memoirs, images and soundscapes inspired by open rehearsals will be available for people to use to furnish and decorate their version of the residence. More interactive instructions for the residence will be available at the Center and during open rehearsals.

Daly has collected several mini memoirs, 2D pieces, and soundscapes in advance to show as examples and inspire others to participate.

“The residence provides a way for people to interact with the emigrant theme in Analogy,” Daly said. “We all come with history.”

Daly says the community project allows the public to be more than receivers of performance. “We get to make our own creative responses to this work,” he said.

But people do not have to identify artists to participate in the Creative Community Residence, Daly stressed. Anyone is welcome to come and observe the open rehearsals and contribute a response.

“This is a rare opportunity,” Daly said. “You will probably never get this window into how someone of this caliber works. You could live anywhere and not have this chance.”

Jones says it is a privilege to share work with a new audience. “You will see us thinking and becoming right in front of your eyes,” he said. “That vulnerability implies trust.”

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Dancers from Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company perform to the music by Ravel. Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Transcending time and space

By inviting people into his company’s art-making process, Jones might say he is inviting us to participate in “the world of ideas.”

“I am always thinking about post-modern dance as an art form,” Jones said. “It is an embodied investigation going on. The investigation is asking, ‘Can we transcend space and time to incorporate [stories like Dora’s] into the discourse my dance company is having every day?’”

“I hope your community will understand that the exotic is part of the fun,” Jones said, referring to World War II narratives as they relate to young people’s lives today.

The company has started a Tumblr site for Analogy, where it posts clips of rehearsals. In one, a lithe, youthful black woman speaks into a microphone, giving voice to a segment of Dora’s memoir. At the same time, she dances with quick, uplifting footwork and broad, generous arm gestures. The juxtaposition is both curious and disconcerting. Watching the clip, my mind skipped through questions about what it means for a young black woman – whose ancestors likely endured American slavery – to joyfully dance while evoking the lived experience of a French Jewish Holocaust survivor.

To find points of physical and spiritual connection like this, where none were obviously visible, is the special province of dance – and the particular transcendent genius of Jones.


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.

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