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Dance review: Performance brings words, deeds of Abraham Lincoln to life

Dance review: Performance brings words, deeds of Abraham Lincoln to life

The thundering work that spans Abraham Lincoln’s life and causes was presented by Jones’ dignified e

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

For Gazette features writer Joanne E. McFadden's preview of this show, click here.

Choreographer Bill T. Jones was concerned that no dance could do justice to the towering figure of Abraham Lincoln. Though when charged with the task, Jones agreed to try and ultimately, he created a work that not only honors one of America’s most admired presidents, but also humanizes Lincoln as a man whose valiant efforts at universal liberty still struggle for fulfillment today.

The thundering work that spans Lincoln’s life and causes was presented by Jones’ dignified ensemble, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night. Titled “Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray” after Lincoln’s own words, the piece was a model of dance, music, words and scenery binding to elevate a narrative and the audience experience. Too bad it played only one night as this work, jammed with metaphor, could be viewed again and again with great interest.

The evening-length piece begins with a deafening crack that sent patrons scurrying to their seats. Across a white scrim, which takes up most of the stage in the form of a circle, illuminates a silhouette of a man in a top hat. And then a statuesque woman of color (Shayla-Vie Jenkins) appears on an extension of the stage. As she moves slowly and fluidly, a voice reads “head, neck, hair, ear. …” He names every part of the body as if it is a checklist and she is up for sale. When the voice finishes, she bows her head and enters the white scrim circle. Hidden behind the curtain with others, she becomes a shadow. No longer flesh, she is a ghost in a dim sea of swirling bodies.

At first, everything is cast in black and white. A tall dancer (LaMichael Leonard Jr.) dressed in black suit as Lincoln would have worn, narrates. Another man (Paul Matteson) dressed in white, dances the part of Lincoln — from his birth to his death. Both men are committed and convincing.

And then the world turns to gray — representing the complexities of the issues of race as well as the people who are disenfranchised and the world at large, which becomes more racially mixed with the passage of time.

The highs and lows are punctuated by the superbly textured music, composed and performed live by Jerome Begin, Christopher Antonio, William Lancaster and George Lewis Jr., which was inspired by folk, rock and traditional tunes from the Civil War era. Equally magnificent was the scenery — the endless circling curtain that served as a screen for projects and the six Doric columns that rose behind it. As they shifted, both columns and curtains shaped the space in infinitely interesting ways.

While Jones was reaching into the past, he was also depicting the present — a country still divided — not by north and south but by political party. Near the end, when the audience once again hears Lincoln’s words, urging enemies to be friends, we know not a lot has changed. And that realization sadly resonates.

Ultimately, Jones created more than a work about Lincoln. He created a treatise that urges all of us to strive for Lincoln’s ideas no matter how out-of-reach they seem.

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