Note: This performance was unfortunately canceled on Friday Jan. 5th, after the snowstorm in the Northeast sidelined the company’s flights, making it impossible for them to get to Miami. Ticketholders can receive a refund at point of purchase. For further questions, call the Arsht Center box office at 305-949-6722.
Moving bodies are at the heart of famed choreographer Bill T. Jones’s art. But this brilliant, challenging artist has always been drawn to other ways of telling a story. He and partner Arnie Zane talked in their earliest 70’s duets. Interviews with cancer and AIDS patients were at the heart of Still/Here, Jones’s 1994 masterwork on mortality. Fondly Do We Hope, Fervently Do We Pray, from 2011, was inspired by Abraham Lincoln and the legacy of slavery and racism. And of course there was his Tony-winning work on the seminal musicals Spring Awakening and Fela!
But he stretches out in new ways in Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist, which the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Company performs Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center in their first visit to Miami in over 20 years. Part of the ambitious Analogy trilogy, it’s a deeply personal work that tells the story of Jones’s talented but self-destructive nephew Lance T. Briggs, whose life has fascinating parallels to that of his famous uncle. The tale of a “pretty boy-gangster-thug” (one of Lance’s nicknames) mixes dance, theatrical scenes, excerpts from conversations between Jones and his nephew, and a singer to help interpret original music that ranges from dance to lullabies. (Critic Kate Arail called it “dazzling” “powerful” and “thrilling” in her review of the premiere at the American Dance Festival for the Durham paper Five Point Star.)
Like the rest of the genre-shaking Jones’s work, Analogy/Lance is bursting with ideas, an experiment in addressing some of the questions occupying the 65 year old MacArthur Genius award recipient and National Medal of the Arts winner in recent years. How do you tell a story? How do you know what’s true? Who defines you? How does he use choreography now that age has changed his dancing?
“These days I’m an artist and director first, and then a choreographer,” Jones said by phone last month. “What else can this art form do? Can it do what literature does? Can it contradict itself, operate on numerous levels, be a political protest – things I’ve been doing my whole career?”
His growing fascination with mediums other than movement shows in his decision to drop “Dance” from the name of the company he founded with his lover and creative partner Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS in 1988.
“I could have let [the company] go, but I chose to keep it to show we were meant to have a child,” says Jones. That child is growing in new ways. “I want an ensemble that can handle music, language and movement with equal sophistication,” he says. “My interest is literary right now. But I love this company.”
Analogy/Lance continues another through line in Jones’s work, of using his own life as inspiration. That raises some uncomfortable questions here. The piece is based on some 33 hours of interviews and conversations between Jones and Lance, the son of one of Jones’s younger sisters, raised in an intensely religious family that saw homosexuality as a sin. Lance showed talent as a dancer, and as a boy got a scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet school. But he was soon drawn to darker outlets for his looks and ability to move: nightlife (“Pretty” was his club nickname/persona), stripping, prostitution, which led to drug use, contracting HIV and stints in prison and rehab.
When Lance was a teenager, Jones, one of 12 children of migrant agricultural workers, was drawn to mentor the nephew who worshipped him and who seemed in some ways like a younger version of himself.
“His two idols were Michael Jackson and uncle Bill,” Jones says. “I was hungry for someone else in my family to be an artist. I wanted him to understand me, to be educated – I wanted a lot of things for him that maybe I wanted for myself.”
He and Zane took Lance in for a short time in the mid-80’s. But the pair were consumed by touring and creating for their famous troupe; and then with the discovery that they were HIV positive.
“He was bright and handsome and a good performer,” says Jones. “He was also a needy young person. We were going to be a gay family. He needed something more.”
The Analogy trilogy is inspired by Jones’s growing interest in literature and, specifically, in the author W.G. Sebald. The first part, Analogy/Dora, is built on interviews with Dora Amelan, a French Jewish woman who survived WWII and is the mother of Jones’s current longtime partner, Bjorn Amelan. The third segment is based on Sebald’s novel The Emigrants, a mix of fiction and history.
In re-creating his nephew’s life, Jones had to wrestle with the slippery questions of how history gets told, who defines a story, how to know what’s real.
“He said ‘I don’t want to tell any more lies, I want to tell the truth’,” Jones says. “It was difficult to pin him down. He’d tell a story one day about being a young male hustler, the next time it’s changed. So which is true?”
But he was also dealing with his and Lance’s conflicted relationship, as family, and as an accomplished artist telling the story of someone who yearned for a creative life.
“What the piece is trying to do is say we have this history, but we say we love each other,” Jones says. “You hear in the transcript an intergenerational discussion about purpose, about pain, about guilt.”
“At a certain point he says ‘Uncle, you said to me you’re not an artist until you can take ugly out of your life and make it beautiful.’ And I said ‘I’m not sure I think it has to be beautiful anymore’.”
The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company performs Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist at 8 p.m. Saturday, at the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets are $30 to $75 at arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722.