BY Joshua David Stein
October 08 2009 9:00 AM ET
In his 1994 production Still/Here, Jones paired video projections of people with AIDS (from “Survival Workshops” he led across the country) with the fierce, arresting movements of dancers clad in blood platelet–like red costumes. The controversial work provoked a high-culture war with certain critics, like Arlene Croce of The New Yorker, who infamously wrote about her refusal to see the piece (which she called “victim art”) and instead wrote about what she’d heard of Still/Here. Jones’s selection of company members, including the atypically Rubenesque Alexandra Beller, quite often led to post-performance confrontations between the company and the audience. And yet, despite this in-your-face antagonism and also because of it, Jones has unified the modern dance world on at least one point: This man is good at what he does.
Jones has won a multitude of awards, including the MacArthur fellowship (the “genius grant”) and the Tony award (for his choreographic work on Spring Awakening). His company has an annual budget of $2.6 million, a steady stream of commissions (the Ravinia Festival commissioned Fondly Do We Hope…), and universal acclaim. Yet Jones remains an artist ironically railing against a world that has resolutely embraced him. There seems to be no better way to challenge audiences than by undertaking the seemingly impossible task of telling a new story about one of America’s most storied figures. Little can be said about Abraham Lincoln that hasn’t already been said, but where does one begin when there’s plenty to be danced about Lincoln that hasn’t yet been danced?
“I’ve spent the last two-plus years wondering, How do I paint the picture of a great man when you read book after book after book of people trying to do just that?” Jones says. After a moment, he continues, “I realized [Ravinia] never asked me to make a portrait of a great man. They asked me to make a piece in response to the legacy of the great man.”
Fondly Do We Hope… doesn’t include slow lateral phrases, Ken Burns effects made human, or a bump-free romp through the legend of Lincoln’s life, from log cabin to White House. “Ken Burns nailed it,” Jones says, referring to the documentarian’s 1990 PBS series, The Civil War, “but that’s not what I’m trying to do.”