Life, limbs and liberty
Choreographer Bill T. Jones puts his new Lincoln project in context.
“I’m in a dialogue with a culture.” It’s a pronouncement that could easily sound pretentious as hell, but Bill T. Jones pulls it off. This internationally respected choreographer could be talking about his whole 30-plus-year career, or his work as artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. But right now, he’s talking about the Abraham Lincoln–inspired Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, getting its world premiere at Ravinia Thursday 17 and Saturday 19. The Ravinia-commissioned project—possibly the choreographer’s most ambitious to date—has been several years in the making. Sitting in his Ravinia dressing room during a rehearsal break, he nibbles at chicken (brought by the company’s creative director, who urges us to make sure Jones eats), but the food will wait—Jones has got things to say.
The prolific dancer-choreographer, who won a Tony for his choreography for Spring Awakening in 2007, knows how to work an audience. He holds your gaze steadily while he talks; he gestures with the strategic grace you’d expect of a choreographer. It’s a compelling performance.
And so, no doubt, will be Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray. The modern-dance and spoken-word piece, with text drawn from Lincoln, Walt Whitman, the Bible and other sources, expresses Jones’s attempt to reconcile his childhood adoration of the President with his more complex understanding of him from the perspective of a mature artist with “very few heroes.”
Why Abe and why now? This year marks the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, for one, but Jones answers with a quote by another President, FDR, delivered in appropriately epic tones: “Yeah, right, well, ‘There comes a time in human affairs when…’?” He goes on to say: “A major festival in the Midwest offered a large, well-funded commission to do anything I wanted around the topic of Abraham Lincoln.” Jones is honest about appreciating “the opportunity to get to feed the beast which is my company.” But he also sees an opportunity to renew his faith in his art. “There’s a chance to feed the kind of alienated man that I see myself becoming. In some quarters I’m seen as having the heart on the sleeve—but hearts get worn out as well. So, okay, Abraham Lincoln.”
Jones puts his whole life on the table to explain his connection to the civil rights–minded President and why this project matters to an openly gay African-American choreographer (living with HIV since 1985) on a deeply personal level. “Imagine: I’m born in 1952, Brown v. Board of Education is ’54, in 1964 I remember distinctly the March on Washington, 1969 I was at Woodstock—yes, I dropped acid there for the first time. Stonewall is in 1969. Arnie Zane [dancer/choreographer, cofounder of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company] and I met in 1971, Arnie Zane died in 1988,” he says. “The culture wars are being waged, and I’ve been through all of this, and I’m a modern dancer. That’s why I use my art to talk about all of those places.”
Nevertheless, Jones is worried about making dance not just accessible but relevant to wider audiences and especially to African-Americans and other minorities. “I have to talk to my nephews and nieces, sisters and brothers. Everyone is bending over backwards to get brown-skinned people into the theater. How can I truly make a work that will have a diverse appeal?” Jones muses about the place of modern dance at a mainstream venue like Ravinia. “Can it entertain a huge popular audience of men, women and children out to have a picnic on the lawn in Ravinia? Can it also do that in a way that is layered? Funny? Fierce? Inscrutable?” Clearly, Jones thinks so.