BY Joshua David Stein
October 08 2009 9:00 AM ET
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.”