Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company: Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant
Saturday, July 29
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

In the mid-1800s, European culture thought it had a fairly clear idea of what the ultimate synthesis of art forms looked and sounded like. Opera works like Wagner’s Ring Cycle combined music, literature, choreography, theater, and visual art in set and costume design, attempting to create a transcendent experience: a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.

If the American Dance Festival performance of Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant didn’t fully illustrate director Bill T. Jones’s hunger for such an artistic fusion in the service of text and storytelling, the postshow talkback left no doubt. Last spring, Jones removed the constrictive word “dance” from the name of the company he and Arnie Zane started in 1983; last week, the sixty-five-year-old Jones openly spoke of delving into film and other projects that may not all involve his first art form.

Where earlier visions of total art often reified the beloved myths central to a particular culture, Jones’s Analogy trilogy has focused instead on tales conspicuously situated toward the edges. After preserving the story of a Holocaust survivor in Analogy/Dora and a troubled inner-city black youth in Analogy/Lance, Jones reminds us again of just how fragile the history of a stigmatized minority is.

In Analogy/Ambros, Jones and dramaturge Adrian Silver have adapted W.G. Sebald’s fictive story of an all-but-vanished uncle in a family of emigrants. From a forty-year-old diary and a small cache of old papers and photographs, the narrator (voiced by Jones) gradually pieces together an incomplete skeleton of Ambros’s relationship with Cosmo Solomon, the young adult son of a wealthy family that employed Ambros as a servant.

After the pair travels the world in the early 1900s, surviving texts that hint obliquely at their gay union suggest a fossil of their relationship in which only the bones, and none of the soft tissue, are preserved. But Jones and choreographer Janet Wong partially reconstitute the central characters in the performances of Shane Larson and Carlo Antonio Villanueva.

The evanescence of stories only partially recorded and remembered is conveyed in Nick Hallett’s haunting score for piano and human voice. When I-Ling Liu soberly sings, “This is the evening,” of a night more than half a century earlier, the lost time Proust wrote of is, somehow, found again—but only briefly. When the fragments never cohere into a false, full picture, Analogy/Ambros shows how little of a life survived, while suggesting how much was lost.