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).
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.”
Instead, Jones has led his company members to build a cast of characters who have sprouted in some way from Lincoln’s legacy, all responding to an imagined children’s-book biography of the great man. Sound complicated? It is. But this sort of organizational inspiration, a conceptual pas de chat that cuts to the very essence of his subject, is exactly what makes Jones such an important choreographer.
“I thought, Why don’t you take that kind of schematic children’s book outline and make that the trope that stands for the accumulated myth?” he explains. Interacting with this inherited narrative, Jones’s characters speak (as well as dance) their irascible modern reactions to a president who oversaw the nation’s deadliest war to date.
“We created other biographies of people who are like us,” Jones says, explaining the dancers’ personae. “She, born in 1975; he, born in 1952; someone who fell in love at age 16; someone who came from a small town in Maine where people have problems with unemployment and alcoholism and served in either Iraq or Afghanistan; a young soldier who is not a fan of our current president because he is arrogant and doesn’t know what it means to have blood on our hands. These are not icons; they are human beings, and we try to create characters who are not necessarily sympathetic but that maybe can suggest a broader picture of who we are.”
Jones admits, “It’s a talky, talky piece,” but of course there’s movement too, great pastures of the unfettered brilliant movement wherein his choreography transforms dancers’ bodies into pure motion, impulse zipping from toe to hand to head to torso, flitting like dragonflies to other bodies, moving in unison and opposition. In one section, a passage about the Civil War, almost the entire company of 11 dancers is onstage, lifting and pulling, clumping and separating in carefully choreographed chaos. In the epilogue, Taiwanese dancer I-Ling Liu reinterprets an earlier solo by Shayla-Vie Jenkins, this time as a slowed, ponderous elegy. But, like most parts of the piece, that section is in creative flux, subject to change. As Janet Wong, the associate artistic director, said in an entry on the show’s blog, Jones felt the war should go, but it was kept, at least for the time being: “We kept the war today. Tomorrow is another day.” (The creative process is also being tracked by Chicago-based Kartemquin Films for A Good Man, a documentary set to air as part of PBS’s American Masters series in the 2010–2011 season.)
War or peace, whatever ultimately ends up on the stage, Fondly Do We Hope… has been transformative for Jones, who has immersed himself in Lincoln literature -- such as presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals (“It’s a motherfucker!”) and Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer’s treatises on iconic photographs of the president. Through the new work Jones has become an expert himself, but more important, the piece has further defined what Jones is not.
“This has been an important exercise in understanding that I am not on Mount Rushmore. I am not an icon,” he says. Nor is Jones, like Lincoln, a populist. “You need some experience to interpret my work; you have to know something about art, you have to know something about music, you have to know something about contemporary dance, to even begin to appreciate my form,” he says matter-of-factly. An overstatement, perhaps. To fully appreciate Lincoln’s formal orations, one would do well to have studied Demosthenes, Lysias, and Antiphon, but his phrases -- from “four score and seven years ago” to “fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray” -- have an immediately accessible power to them. So too does Jones’s work.
And though loves Lincoln, Jones is no politician. “We [artists] are too self-involved to be politicians,” he says. “That is art by its very nature, and it is also a very alienated stance. At least the type of artist I have been, I have to be constantly saying no to people who are trying to define me either in or away from their camp. ‘He’s a gay artist?’ Well, what do you mean, I’m a gay artist? I’m gay. I happen to be an artist. ‘He’s a black artist?’ I’m black, it’s true, but how do you define a black artist? Is that how small you want me to be? I live my whole life with my dukes up in this pugnacious stance, and a lot of it has to do with keeping the motherfuckers away with their stupidity and their reduction, because I am mystery to myself and I am certainly not an open book to you.”