STORYTELLING AS MEMORY

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The white backdrop—as blank and clean as an artist’s canvas—shone brightly as lights dawned on the stage, revealing an industrial and exposed curtain-less space. Upstage left, a standing mic; and downstage, a table, two chairs, and two mics. Dressed in loose-fitting pants and t-shirts, the nine company dancers made their way into the space. Their bodies, like the set around them, formed a blank slate. While the dancers calmly took their place—some at the mic, others on mats on the floor—the speakers came to life with the sound of an older woman singing the haunting French lullaby “Le soleil et la lune.”

Photo by Paul B. Goode

So began Bill T. Jones’s highly-anticipated, historic West Coast debut of his three-night Analogy Trilogy at the Meany Theater. The first installment, based on an oral history conducted by Jones in 2002, recounted 95-year-old Dora Amelan’s life story. A Jewish nurse who helped save children from Holocaust internment camps, Amelan described her life in snippets of recorded interview—her voice slightly wavering yet still charged. Through Bill T. Jones’s artistic lens, her story of perseverance took form in a stunning and powerful exhibition of movement and sound.

Amelan started her story at the very beginning, except now, the company dancers took up the mic one at a time. The men spoke for Jones and the women spoke for Amelan in a word-for-word reiteration of the 2002 interview. The first woman speaker explained her story at the start of the war, when bombs fell over her hometown of Antwerp. Her father was destitute and her mother ill. Meanwhile, the dancers lifted a trio of mats from the floor into different configurations, representing a wall, or Amelan’s family’s hotel. The dancers walked gracefully among the space, creating angular planes and shapes with their limbs and inhabiting the negative space formed by the mats. At each new scene, a new dancer took to the mic, and spoke as Amelan in a clear and unfaltering voice. Each reincarnate told a bit of the story—how she made her way into France, became a nurse, and volunteered with “L’Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants,” or OSE, to help orphaned children out of internment camps.

Photo by Paul B. Goode

Several scenes stood out for Jones’s ability to expertly weave dance with storytelling. During one scene, Amelan described her cousin, the famous pantomime Marcel Marceau. A crucial actor in the French resistance effort, he too smuggled children from Eastern French internment camps. All the while, Huiwang Zhang, clad in a pinstripe shirt, perfectly embodied the silly, Chaplinesque quality of the world-famous mime. In another scene, Amelan described the internment camps in the Pyrenees—places of utter misery where “phantoms” roamed with “dull eyes.” A second dancer, surrounded by a metal box upstage, slowly formed photographic gestures in a sullen, contemplative manner. Her lithe, graceful quality contrasted sharply against the harshness and reality of the spoken words.

In the final and most memorable scene from the dance, Amelan described liberation day. Dancers jumped up and down and slapped their knees to the famous French resistance anthem “Chant des Partisans.” Holding hands in a round, the dancers kicked their legs jubilantly to the point of exhaustion. They created such a sense of excitement and euphoria, that even after the lights dimmed, the song seemed to reverb in the air. Then quietly, Amelan’s voice—her real voice—returned to repeat the beautiful French lullaby. Her voice lingered in the air with a newfound sense of resilience after the retelling of her incredible life’s story.

Admittedly, this review only speaks to one portion of Jones’s three-part compendium. The other two analogy installments of the series, Analogy/Lance and Analogy/Ambros, told wildly different stories. The former is based off an interview with Lance, a sex trade worker, and the latter a novel by W.G. Sebald on the immigrant experience. All three speak to the same themes of struggle and resilience. While I can only attest to the first piece, it is without a doubt that Jones remains one of the most venerable choreographers of our time. In Analogy/Dora, Jones’s choreography and soundscape made for a powerful performance. The performers brought Amelan’s story to life by filling the blank canvas of the stage with their talent both as dancers and orators. Jones makes clear through his Analogy series that while stories like these inevitably fade with the passing of time, storytelling in all its artistic mediums remains a powerful form of memory.