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A Performance Finds Inspiration in the Life of the 16th U.S. President

State of the Arts


From Fondly Do We Hope...
  • From Fondly Do We Hope...

Choreographer Bill T. Jones’ new work opens with a single dancer. She moves slowly, deliberately and with powerful restraint as a voice calls out, listing the parts of her body — from head to breasts to armpits to the arch of the foot — as if to bless each one.

Later in the performance, the voice returns, but this time from the mouth of a slave auctioneer, enumerating body parts as a man writhes alone on the auction block to the sounds of shouting and a whip cracking.

Fondly Do We Hope ... Fervently Do We Pray, which plays at the Hopkins Center for the Arts next week, was originally commissioned for the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth as Jones’ response to the life and legacy of that complicated man.

It was a tall order.

Jones, who stands at the helm of his dance company and does not often perform these days, knew from the start the piece couldn’t be biographical or analytical. “I felt out of my league there,” he says in a video interview on his blog at www.billtjones.org, addressing questions his audiences have posed since Fondly... premiered at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago last September.

So Jones turned the idea of Lincoln’s legacy inside out, asking his dancers and staff to tell him their own biographies. That way Jones could begin to present a vision of the diverse world the 16th president left behind.

This novel method was not unusual for the Harlem-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. For the last 25 years, the ensemble has performed in nearly 200 cities around the globe and is recognized as one of the most innovative forces in the modern dance world.

The company was at the Flynn in January to perform another piece honoring Lincoln’s life called Serenade/The Proposition. Jones created that less ambitious piece — more a rumination on history than a sweeping response to Lincoln’s legacy — during the development of Fondly...

In the finished work, a handful of those biographies — as well as two more of Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd — are read aloud over solos, bringing to life such characters as a patriotic veteran of the war in Afghanistan, a black man born in the 1950s South, and a recent college graduate raised by a single mother in Florida.

On his blog, Jones explains that he wanted to evoke Lincoln’s legacy by juxtaposing American characters in disagreement. “We are still disagreeing about things he’s associated with, like civil rights, like human rights, like citizenship, like the whole political debate at the time, which was so fractious,” he says.

As a child, Jones, an African American, saw Lincoln as a hero, he explains in his video. But as he’s grown older, he’s begun to look more critically at the man. The dance’s title, which refers to Lincoln’s second inaugural address and continues, “that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” reflects that complexity.

“I was using [the quote] fondly to — in a warm but somewhat ironic way — talk about Lincoln as being reduced to a few simple tropes,” Jones says. “It is earnest, but, by the same token, it is in quotations; it’s sepia-tinted; it’s talking about a distant past in a quaint though lofty language that in some ways is alien to us now.”

With a libretto drawn from Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, the Old Testament and the 16th president’s own words, the work feels at times more like a play than a dance. In one scene, evoking the debates between Lincoln and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, part of the company dances while the rest sit on stools with microphones, shouting out their positions on everything from immigration to gay marriage.

“I’m interested in something as concrete as language and something as fugitive as movement, and what happens when the two of them are juxtaposed or overlaid or interrogated by each other,” Jones says.

Indeed, layers of music, spoken word, video and dance pile up throughout the work. But Jones reminds audiences, especially those less familiar with dance, that they don’t need to catch every detail.

“I would say to people to relax,” he says. “Don’t be concerned about every moment adding up to something. They should allow what can come to them to come. I’m concerned with what sticks with them the next morning.”