Bill’s Blog: July

Next month Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant will be premiering in July at Dancers Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  It’s the third installment to the Analogy Trilogy as it is based on a novel unlike the other two which are autobiographical oral histories. Seabald himself—in a book called The Emergence of Memory – says that Ambros is actually a biographical character. In an interview, someone asked him, “Did you have an uncle Ambros?” And he has a way of wiggling vaguely about it. So we are led to believe that Ambros is based on some fact in his life—which makes the story even more remarkable. He’s not around to ask how much.

Photo credit: Andrew Jernigan

The first installment in the trilogy, was based on my mother-in-law, Dora Amelan, from an oral history that I just happened to do with her (soon to be 16-17 years ago) for her sons (my husband and his brother). I did it for them. But when I began to read The Emigrants and started trying to first put the quasi-novelistic character together—a German man born in 1880’s with my Jewish mother-in-law Dora Amelan born in 1920— I thought why not try to make a piece where I fold them both together? And I realized it was too rich and didn’t know how to do it.

So why don’t we separate them out?… Oh!

This should be three parts!

And why don’t we take the one that is actually closest right now—which is Dora who I see twice a year and speak to every week on the phone. Let’s start with her. And that’s how the first part became about Dora.

And what’s in the middle?

My nephew. It’s the most personal thing. When I started doing his oral histories—inspired by Dora’s—we thought he was going to die. It was a time for truth telling. Was he novelistic? No, but he and I bonded around the idea of creating a work that was quasi-fictitious. I’m making a work looking at him try to make a work. He’s making a work and not knowing anything about making anything based around a character he created psychologically called “PRETTY.” My nephew… really right to the heart of trying to be who I am in the world… Very diverse group of friends making art that is not in the mainstream really. The only thing we have in common really is—yes we are both gay—that we are blood relatives and both interested in the arts. Of course he had a kink in it—one all too familiar— he was a drug addict which led him down a certain path. When I hear the term now, “at risk kids,”—literally my adult life has been asking me to come in to tell kids, “It’s ok to be an artist”, as an alternative to a life in the streets.

Well as for my nephew, I’m his uncle. He was accepted to San Francisco School of Ballet, but still ended up having a life full of sexual predation and drug abuse. So this idea that art can save us… This uncle who has bought the whole thing of being an artist as a way of salvation… and he, who on the brink of death, found that and trying to build on it… who is most in touch with reality? The uncle or the nephew? So, as I have interviewed Dora and Lance, the company, in a way, is interviewing Ambros.


You may have read the New York Times feature last year. I started trying to tell stories and do abstract movement at the same time that I started to make art. I was in love with the abstract possibilities of movement, but was also really intrigued by the stories that my mother and father told in the context of being in upstate New York in a German-Italian community with nice working class white people for the most part and a handful of blacks. There was this whole load of information—a lot of it before I was born—that became family lore (and I suppose every family had it)—that had to compete with American television or LIFE Magazine or the Bible. And though these stories were real—my parent’s exploits, where they came from, their childhood or their memories of the south—they might as well have been myths in themselves. So when I started, using the abstraction of my body and immediacy and minding the stories that were available to me—in the way that my mother and father would mind the stories of their childhood to entertain us, scare us, or instruct us—those worlds came together.

I didn’t want to illustrate what I was saying so I had to find other systems. Those systems  came from improvisation that I learned from Richard Bol, Lois Welk (thought leader at the American Dance Asylum, Binghamton, 1970’s), and what I might understand as system-making as Trisha Brown might understand it. Telling stories and moving was a way of answering many questions for me: Where do I fit in? – not only in the dance world, but in the contemporary art world.

(Speaking to myself) What is the confessional? You’re prone to the confessional, but how do you give shape to the confessional? And how do you position it? Is it a universal story you’re telling? Or is it hyper-personal with the potential to speak to all the hyper-personal stories your audience has? Are you a black preacher exhorting the congregation which is your audience to some hard truce about life through illustrations? Or are you a poet entertaining them with sound and fury? That’s what the story telling was in the beginning. Has it continued in that way?

The Lincoln piece, Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray, was an invitation to make a work for the 200th anniversary of the birth of our president, who just happened to be “the great emancipator”… or was he? And I could do anything I wanted. I wanted to tell his story. I wanted the “story book” man to be made three-dimensional and I wanted him to be built out of the imagination of contemporary people—many of them young enough to be my children. How do we get the historical man to meet the fantasies, attention, and inattention of my organization—which is a microcosm of the world.


Arnie Zane and I use to say, “The company is not the world that we live in, it is the world we would like to live in.” Contemporary dance—or the avant garde as I understood it—was not doing characters. It was actually demonstrating something. Dance was like a 3-dimensional sculpture time-based as way of directing a group of strangers. What we did. Where we did it. It was a way to talk about things close to my heart—like politics and power—but doing it through abstraction. When small people lifted big people— Arnie Zane (5’4) lifting Bill T. Jones (6’1). And there’s something about the sweat of grappling that plays through all the fears that my parents and the southerners had about such a nation: Who is swapping spit with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? Dance has always been—or it use to be—a metaphor away from sex. But let’s just mix it up. What if anybody could dance with anybody? And what if you didn’t have to be beautiful or a god/goddess to do it? Now have that reality going on next to something Bill is saying which is maybe a memory from his mother and father or some anecdote from his life. Now that has informed [Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray] and also Story/Time. Big time.

Story/Time was a very self-conscious imitation of John Cage dealing with the hated narrative form. I think it’s fair to say he was against narrative—he was an Irish man so he told stories very well, but he also the thought the world was too facaded with narrative. And why did something have to start here and end there? Why couldn’t it start in the middle and then go into the beginning and then the ending? Why couldn’t everything be by chance procedure? Or why couldn’t he make stories that are all over the map and then through chance procedure organize the progression of the stories with no glue or transitions in between? It’s a very radical exercise: anti-narration. It was a challenge to me [to write and collate] 180 short stories. The concision of language—being able to understand the whole story in one minute—and now through chance procedure organize them. That is the narration running next to what? A catalogue of 30 years of creating movement. Talk about deep water here. Just have faith that you’re going to have an audience interested in the puzzle—a patient audience that you don’t have to seduce with a climax. And they will be changing the channel every minute. That is how Story/Time changed from Everybody Works/All Beasts Count—the first solo I did in 1977.