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Bill T. Jones' Lincoln work is emotional expression, not history lesson

Bill T. Jones' Lincoln work is emotional expression, not history lesson

Yes, it’s about Abraham Lincoln, but there’s oh, so much more. On July 28, the Saratoga Performing A

Yes, it’s about Abraham Lincoln, but there’s oh, so much more.

On July 28, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center brings to its stage “Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray,” a multimedia dance-theater work by acclaimed choreographer/director Bill T. Jones, who just won a Tony award for the Broadway hit “FELA!”

Jones, founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, was originally reluctant to accept the commission from the Ravinia Festival in Illinois to celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. In general, he does not do directed commissions. He said he certainly didn’t want to create a biopic that would end up being no more than a history lesson for audiences.

He did decide to take on the job, and after two years of hard work and intense collaboration with his associate artistic director, Janet Wong, his company’s dancers, musicians and set, lighting and sound designers, “Fondly Do We Hope” premiered at the Ravinia Festival on Sept. 17, 2009.

Creative nature

The work speaks to Jones’ highly creative and reflective nature. “Fondly Do We Hope” promises a look at Lincoln like no other, despite the thousands of books written about the man and his life. The choreographer and director keeps all of his works fresh and cutting edge.

’Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray’

For Gazette dance writer Wendy Liberatore's review of this show, click here.

“I don’t want to fall into a generic formula in anything I do,” he said. “That is the atmosphere in the company.”

The company of modern dancers, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, is stronger than ever.

“I feel I have more resources now — emotional resources, conceptional resources. My organization is stronger, and we can try more things.”

“Fondly Do We Hope” is certainly new and different.

The title comes from a phrase from Lincoln’s second inaugural address near the end of the Civil War, just two weeks before his assassination. While the work does include key moments in Lincoln’s life and times, it uses these events to explore ourselves and the issues that we are dealing with as a country today.

Expressing feelings

“When I make something, it is my trying to come to grips with feelings and ideas,” said Jones, who grew up in a home that had a portrait of Lincoln hanging on the wall. “This is expressed through the personality and performances of the dancers, the texts you hear, the way the stage changes. That is an ever-shifting canvas that I use very self-consciously.”

Ten of the company’s dancers and one actor, Jamyl Dobson, perform to spoken words, music and video interludes created by Wong.

The live score, by Christopher Antonio, William Lancaster, Jerome Begin and George Lewis Jr., is a combination of original compositions and popular music from the Civil War era, including classical and folk music, fused with folk and rock elements. It ranges from upbeat to downright haunting.

The texts, some spoken, some projected, come from Walt Whitman, Lincoln’s own speeches and the Old Testament.

The set, designed by Bjorn G. Amelan, is an oval floor on the main stage connected by a walkway to a smaller satellite stage. A set of white curtains hangs from a track over the main stage, and these are opened and closed at different points throughout the 90-minute production.

Dancers arrange movable white classical columns, reminiscent of the columns at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., around the stage into various configurations. The video segments, which include written words, shadow figures and photographs, are projected onto a huge screen behind the stage.

It is on this set that the dancers and Dobson look at Lincoln the man, and lead audiences into a journey of the past, present and future. Lincoln’s life is used as a lens through which our own lives and times can be examined.

Jones does this in ways that ooze creativity. The piece opens with dancer Shayla-Vie Jenkins dancing a solo to the words of Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Sing the Body Electric” with lines including, “Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth . . . Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition.”

Later, to the same words, audiences see a post-modern portrayal of a slave auction in which another dancer is moving to the same words in a much more lyrical way.

Yet another reading of this same poem, interspersed with words like, “Water, poured over the nose and mouth” transports audiences right into the present day, relating the treatment of slaves to the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.

Poignant moments

There are some particularly poignant moments, such as the duet between the Lincoln and Mary Todd figures, showing the romantic love that they shared and also the grief they felt at losing three of their four sons.

In addition to these brief biographical sketches, there are dramatic scenes that speak to the debates of the time and the issues that so divided the country. But they aren’t meant to be a history lesson or to stay in the past. “Fondly Do We Hope” brings these issues right into the present by interspersing biographies of modern-day people, including a capsule biography of Jones himself and one of a person born in 2009, looking back on present day.

This biographic sketch from the future is designed to encourage people to give some thought about how our own times will be viewed by people in the future.

“If we give someone in the future, 100 years looking back on us, would they have the same questions and concerns that we have looking at the country going into the Civil War? Would they approve of us? Would they be proud of us?” he asked.

These vignettes, along with the other pieces in the production, point out that we are still dealing with the same issues that people were dealing with during Lincoln’s time, including a divided country, war and discrimination.

Multilayered work

While “Fondly Do We Hope” has a historical context, Jones does not think that people should be intimidated by the history in it.

“They should come open and curious,” he said. The work is multilayered and multidimensional, and “it demands of the audience that they do some of the heavy lifting” to make sense of it.

He wants his audiences to reflect. “Think about this concept: Are we, or are we not still involved in a civil war of sorts? The difference is that it’s an undeclared war. There are no blues and grays, but there are a dizzying variety of fronts and protagonists. If they can understand that, then they can understand where I’m coming from in the making of the work.”

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