Bill T. Jones negotiates an army of collaborators, a handful of documentary filmmakers and a bunch of snoopy journalists as he strives to realize his new work about Abraham Lincoln.
Ravinia made a smart move commissioning Bill T. Jones to create Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray; the project generated enough excitement that Kartemquin Films got onboard to chronicle the production process for PBS. In May, we spent a day behind the scenes at Ravinia during a rehearsal, thus becoming part of a meta-event: It’s a film shoot, rehearsal, production meeting and press event all in one.
4:40pm We meet with Nick Pullia, Ravinia’s director of public relations. Like virtually everyone we talk to all evening, he starts our conversation by asking, “Have you talked to Bill yet?” It’s like a cult.
4:55pm In the pavilion, we find the band rehearsing. It’s unseasonably chilly, and everyone is wearing jackets. Singer Clarissa Sinceno is bundled up so that only her face pokes out. Massive heat blowers have been set up on each side of the stage. Bob Hercules and Gordon Quinn, codirectors of the Kartemquin doc, are lurking with their sound man and cameraman as unobtrusively as anyone can with a giant boom-mike rig and heavy camera.
5:08pm Jones arrives. Dressed in black, he strides authoritatively down the aisle. He patiently endures being body-miked while he tries to talk to the dancers and his collaborator Janet Wong, who is working on the video projection that will be a part of this multilayered piece.
5:18pm “All right, let’s start,” Jones’s voice booms over the PA. “Let’s go from the top of Shayla.” The ensemble takes its position against the cyclorama at the back of the stage; on center stage Shayla-Vie Jenkins begins a series of sharp, flailing movements, as if being pushed and shoved by an outside force. While she moves, actor Jamyl Dobson, standing off stage left, intones a list of body parts: “Ankles, insteps, the heel, toe joints…” and then “Sold”—the music incorporates the sound of a whip cracking.
5:27pm Composer Christopher Antonio William Lancaster (yes, that’s all his name) and Jones have an emotional interchange about whether a piece of music could be cut. Kartemquin’s sound guy races to get the boom mike over Lancaster’s head, and the cameraman hovers over both of them. “We worked really hard on this. Can you let us play it and see?” Lancaster pleads. Jones gives a noncommittal “okay,” but his tone suggests the piece will remain cut. It does nothing to ease the tension.
5:31pm “We’ve got a lot of wiggle today. I guess it’s a survival technique,” Jones drily notes to his fidgety dancers. Sweaty despite the cold, the dancers know better than to sit still in the chill; they use the time to practice spatial patterns of the group dance while the musicians work out changes in the score.
5:38pm “It’s not just a scream. It’s a Johnny Rotten scream,” Jones says to guitarist-vocalist George Lewis Jr. Jones uses his best Sex Pistols voice to growl the lines, “Come and see. COME AND SEE.”
5:57pm Jones tries to smooth out tension with Lancaster. “It’s not that I don’t like what you wrote. It’s that I don’t like what I [choreographed] with what you wrote.”
6:20pm From the back of the hall, Jones gives instructions to the dancers about a complicated new bit of choreography: “Go to your ending battlefield places. Let’s start at the ceremonial entrance at the top of the war.” The dancers take their places against the wings stage left to begin a slow procession of dirge- and oddly bird-like gestures. Jones pauses, working to balance the ensemble against a poignant solo by Paul Matteson. The rehearsals will continue, building momentum until audiences finally take their seats for Jones’s celebration of the 16th President.