New Bill T. Jones dance-theater piece vividly depicts a refugee's journey

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company
New Jersey Arts

Midway through “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” the extraordinary dance-theater piece that the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company unveiled on Thursday as part of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, dancer I-Ling Liu finds herself boxed in. Liu is standing inside the framework of a room like a jail cell, and though this narrow chamber has no walls, it’s plain she cannot leave.

As Liu stands there, waves of movement pass through her body like unsettling emotions threatening to topple her. Her taut hands open gradually as self-possession replaces fear and, straightening her shoulders, Liu pulls back cautiously. Meanwhile, someone is telling a story about World War II, describing the squalid camps at Rivesaltes and Gurs, in France, where Jews were interned prior to their deportation and murder. Employed by the shadowy organization known as OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants), a 19-year-old woman named Dora Werzberg worked in those camps, helping to save lives. Now 95 and the mother of scene designer Bjorn G. Amelan, she is choreographer Bill T. Jones’ mother-in-law, and her stories inspired this piece.

Empathy is the motor driving this spectacle, the first section of a projected trilogy. Empathy is how art works and, as the central question in our relations with others, it has threaded its way through Jones’ career. And though the Second World War is shrinking in the distance, empathy is sorely needed today, as new wars menace the world and refugees seek safety by the boatload. The capacity to imagine what others experience may be humanity’s last chance to save itself.  “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane” is not all grim, however. In Nick Hallett’s composite soundscape, the wail of sirens and percussive bombardment give way to the cultured voice of German lieder and to French love songs heard on the radio. Unexpectedly, Marcel Marceau appears in the person of dancer Erick Montes-Chavero, his rolling walk and grimaces making fun of Hitler. And even in the worst of circumstances, Dora takes comfort in knowing that good people can be found where least expected. Hope shines when we see through her eyes, while in Jones’ re-casting of her life, the traits that divide people from one another fade into insignificance. In this profound and generous work, hatred becomes as insubstantial as the ghosts of memory.
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