Growing up in Haifa and throughout Europe, Bjorn Amelan didn’t know — nor think to ask — about his mother’s life before she immigrated to Israel. As a Jewish girl, Dora Amelan, living in Belgium as the German army was beginning its march through Europe, saw her ill grandparents dragged away and deported to a Nazi camp. She found her way to France where, at 19, she worked in an internment camp, saving the lives of Jewish children as a nurse and social worker.
Bjorn Amelan’s mother survived the Holocaust, but lost much of her family. He knew little of her story until his husband, choreographer Bill T. Jones, began an oral history.
Amelan is quick to note that she was never interned in a concentration camp, but through Jones’ conversations with her over 15 years, he understood his mother’s life more fully. Now 96, Dora Amelan lives in Paris. Last spring, Bjorn saw her receive the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military and civilian recognition.
Jones’ recordings became the inspiration and script for “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” the choreographer’s rumination on war and survival, resilience and sacrifice, memory and remembrance. A MacArthur genius fellow whose works have spanned nearly four decades, these days his dances draw on personal experiences and narratives, architectural structures and a rich palette of contemporary modern dance elements.
With his late artistic and life partner Arnie Zane, Jones became the talk of the dance world in the 1980s, and their Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company was acclaimed for cutting-edge work. When Zane died in 1988 at 39, Jones began choreographing singly, making elegant and increasingly political works, dealing with race and gender, AIDS and terminal illness, the Iraq war and other headline issues.
Dora Amelan’s memories are at the core of “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane.” It’s the first part of a developing trilogy dealing with issues of resilience. Part two, “Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist,” takes up the challenging life of one of Jones’s nephews who has battled street violence, thug and drug life. Part three will premiere next year.
Jones and Bjorn Amelan met in Paris, where, as a French national, Amelan moved after completing high school in Haifa. There he built his career in the art and photography worlds. In 1993, they decided to live together and Amelan moved to New York, where he continues his work as a painter, adding scenic designs for his partner’s works.
On the designs for “Analogy/Dora,” Amelan says, “Bill does not like sets to be purely decorative, static ornaments. He wants the sets to architecturally become an integral part of the choreography, moving and shaping the space and creating events that are choreographic. He asked me to design some moving parts that involve architecture that the dancers could move around or be just danced around, depending on the moment.”
In listening to the conversations Jones had with his mother, Amelan recalls hearing much that she had kept from him about her past in Vichy France. “The things I did not know … the more extreme things … were the details of where she worked for an underground Jewish organization to save children when she was only 19. I did not know the gruesome details of life in the camps” at Gurs and Rivesaltes. The title, “Tramontane,” comes from a word for a northern mountain wind that whipped through those camps.
A question sometimes nags Amelan: Can art change us? He muses: “I don’t know if [art] can make a difference. On the other hand, I do know that the only thing that survives from any culture is its art. Art making, as Bill says, is exploring the world of ideas and participating in the world of ideas.”
He continues, “Art has a powerful influence on us, but can I tell you that that this piece will influence people’s perception of those events? I do not know. That’s very individual.”
“Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Oct. 14, 8 p.m. Center for the Arts George Mason University, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. Tickets $29-$48. Call 888-945-2468.