“Let us do something grand/just this once …”
Bill T. Jones intoned at the 2016 opening ceremony for Spoleto Festival USA, his voice deep, strong and mercury-smooth.
“Something small and important and un-American/Some fine thing … in a defiant land/of its own a real right thing.”
The verses are those of poet Frank O’Hara, but their meaning and heft, indeed their defiance, are pure Jones. His statuesque dancer’s body and his baritone even more resonant than that of James Earl Jones were a formidable presence on that City Hall dais for the 40th anniversary of Charleston’s landmark festival three years ago, the first Spoleto following the Emanuel AME tragedy. He invoked the power of art to heal and confront, but even more he and his dancers embodied it.
The icon of contemporary dance has never shied from grand gestures and bold statements — not in his avant-garde choreography or in his words and writing. His company was slotted to perform at Spoleto in 2000, but Jones boycotted in protest of the Confederate flag still flying at the Statehouse. And after his much-praised performances here in 2016, the artist, who is now artistic director of the New York Live Arts, offered up some pointed observations about racism witnessed during his visit to Charleston, in a blog post titled “Fear and Anger.” Conversations about the Calhoun Monument and the Emanuel shootings had left him shaking his head and “wondering once again about the nature of truth, the passage of time and whose narrative becomes the reigning one,” Jones wrote.
Those remain important questions for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, which returns to the Spoleto stage “to do something grand, just this once” for the sixth time this year. But there will be some differences this go-round. For one, the company (Zane, a dancer/choreographer who died in 1988, was Jones’ life partner and co-founder, co-artistic director of their company) has dropped “dance” from its name and according to Jones, now considers itself more of a “contemporary performance ensemble” whose work, as will be evident in Analogy Trilogy on the Festival docket, is more of a collage than traditional dance concert.
Three individual programs (Analogy/Dora: Tramontane; Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist; Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant), each a stand-alone, separately ticketed performance, fold into each other — a version of storytelling as origami, only it’s bodies and voices bending and blending, not paper.
Jones created Analogy Trilogy in collaboration with the company’s associate artistic director, Janet Wong, basing the first two on oral histories of his mother-in-law and Holocaust survivor Dora Amelan, and his nephew and fellow dancer, Lance, who like Jones is gay and a non-mainstream artist, and at the time of their conversations was a struggling drug addict. The third was inspired by narratives from W.E. Sebald’s The Emigrants.
All three installments explore similar terrain: the effect of trauma; the role of memory and personal, often difficult truth telling; and how movement and narrative can collectively bring a character to life. Jones and company push us to consider what is a life well lived, and how can art can shape that.
There’s a reason Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company keeps getting invited back to Spoleto — their work is always edgily fresh, unexpected and challenging. And if past performances are any indication, there’s no shortage of jaw-dropping, sensual physicality on display either. Word on the street from those who have seen this work performed elsewhere is not to skimp but see them all sequentially (the ticket office offers special trifecta pricing).
To offset that outlay, there’s also a free “Conversations With” program where CBS Sunday’s Martha Teichner interviews Jones about his process and the work, and most certainly, whatever the heck else he wants to talk about. Given that this trilogy grew out of Jones’ interviews with Dora and Lance, this should be a fitting and engaging turn of play. It’s a chance to hear Jones’ beautifully rich baritone and glimpse his limber, graceful mind at work — artistry aplenty right there.