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

From left, Antonio Brown, Rena Butler and Shayla-Vie Jenkins dance in

PAUL B. GOODE

From left, Antonio Brown, Rena Butler and Shayla-Vie Jenkins dance in “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane.”

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.

Liu’s introspective solo is a brief episode among the many roiling scenes of “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” as the cast of nine dancers pull apart the flimsy scenery and refashion it to suggest the different locales that Dora passed through on a refugee’s journey from her family home in Belgium to the camp set on an arid plain at the foot of the Pyrenees. Yet Liu’s solo explains how this delicate and plaintive dance has come to be; and it suggests the power art has to challenge us and possibly alter our future. It demonstrates how a fine-boned Taiwanese woman can learn to imitate the movements of a tall and powerfully built black man, making his style her own. More affectingly, it reveals how that man, Jones, has placed himself in the position of a Jewish teenager navigating a treacherous rite of passage.

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.

In “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane” the members of Jones’ diverse company take turns at a microphone, echoing the choreographer as he interviews his subject and identifying with the title character as she tells her story. The speakers sit across from each other at a small table or join the action as it unspools fluidly. While this movement is never literal, the dancers’ lithe bodies and their marvelously nuanced performances awaken our senses.

As Dora, Shayla-Vie Jenkins lingers by a wall taking stock before she strides forward to defy the creditors who have besieged her father’s hotel in Belgium. Concentrating hard, Antonio Brown is the father wringing his hands and calculating his next move. When Dora squeaks through a door that is about to close, entering the office where a Nazi commandant is issuing scarce travel permits, hands seize Jenkins and haul her through a narrow opening. Later, as the Holocaust tightens its grip, Rena Butler slips underneath Talli Jackson’s arm describing the subterfuges of the OSE. Dancing hip-to-hip, these two perform a tight duet that tells us how closely Dora and her colleagues skirted danger. Lying on the floor and rocking in the shadows, dancers show us the darkness of the midnight trains ferrying young and old to their deaths. In a halting voice, Jenna Riegel recounts a moral dilemma: saving children could mean surrendering adults to satisfy the Nazis’ daily quota of deportees.

“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.

“Analogy: Dora: Tramontane” continues through Sunday at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Tickets are $20. Call (973) 655-5112 or visit peakperfs.org.

On Saturday, Jones, Dora Amelan and members of the company will participate in a post-show discussion.

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