BY Joshua David Stein
October 08 2009 9:00 AM ET
Few choreographers have the audacity to wring from the stirring speeches and tragic life of Abraham Lincoln an evening-length mixed-media dance theater work. Fewer still have the talent to do it without wading into the fetid waters of dance theater cliché, with stovepipe hats and fake beards. But Bill T. Jones has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
To launch such a project -- sure to catch the critical gaze of audiences seeking both historical and contemporary political references -- is a weighty task in itself. But the fact that Jones is undertaking this while simultaneously bringing Fela! a two-hour, 40-minute song-and-dance extravaganza about Nigerian composer Fela Kuti, with whom few Americans are familiar, to the Broadway stage during a serious recession pushes that task from the quixotic to Herculean.
After two years in the making, Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, inspired by the life of America’s 16th president, premiered at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill. (near Chicago), in September; Jones’s company will perform it around the nation in the coming months, and it is also the topic of an upcoming PBS documentary. Fela! which Jones premiered off-Broadway last year, has its Broadway debut November 23.
As a divisive, brash, and insightful iconoclast, Jones has spent the last 28 years riling up audiences with his politically charged provocative choreography. In 1982, Jones, a tall black man, and his life partner, a short white Jewish Italian-American named Arnie Zane, formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Their bracing, abrasive work tackled head on the AIDS epidemic that claimed Zane’s life in 1988 and forever altered Jones’s (he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985).