“What is worth doing? For me, it is connecting with people who have answered that question for themselves,” says Bill T. Jones, explaining how he settled on Abraham Lincoln as the subject of his latest work. “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” is a daring reimagining of American history through performance and arguably the most ambitious project to date for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. This multimedia dance-theater production, which made its world debut at the Ravinia Festival last September, stands, at once, as both a reconsideration and appreciation of one of this country’s most beloved presidents. It is scheduled to make its New York premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival on July 15.
Talking to Jones, one becomes acutely aware of the delicate balancing act that the celebrated choreographer and dancer must perform in managing his competing personae of icon and iconoclast. At 58, Jones has matured into the role of a distinguished elder statesman of the dance world – his establishment credentials include a MacArthur “genius grant” and two Tony awards, including one for his current Broadway production of “Fela!” – yet remains every bit the provocateur that made him a lightening rod during the culture wars of the 1990s. (Jones found himself engulfed in an ideological firestorm after the New Yorker’s then-dance critic dismissed his 1995 “Still/Here,” a response to partner Arnie Zane’s AIDS-related death, as “victim art” and famously refused to review the actual performance.)
For some, it’s precisely Jones’ cultivated role of the insider/outsider that enables him to reevaluate Lincoln’s legacy – and humanity — without being overly burdened by the hagiographic portraits that have dominated the national imagination since his assassination. Jones makes it clear that this work was never conceived as a biographical account, but rather as “a surface of associations and perceived wisdom and facts…[that] I can hold up as something in which we might be able to recognize ourselves today.”
“Fondly Do We Hope” is an ambitious piece of dance theater that intersperses passages from Lincoln’s speeches and the Bible with Walt Whitman’s poetry, black spirituals and video art to create a collage of American history that is as fractured as it is vibrant. “What goes back and forth between us and the [figures on Mount Rushmore]? Do we have to aspire to be icons for our lives to matter? These are some of the questions, I think, that are being asked in my work. And that’s rooted in a very democratic… gravity-bound [tradition] of the postmodern era that informed me. We are not, as Martha Graham says, ‘acrobats of God.’”
As for Lincoln, Jones likes to say that as a child he was only allowed to love this one white man unconditionally. Yet, as a mature artist, he had to wrestle with the complicated reality of a human being whose views on racial equality and freedom were much more conflicted than the abolitionist hero-president that holds sway in the popular imagination. At one point in the process, Jones had even thought of calling this piece “A Good Man! A Good Man?” but eventually decided against taking a “prosecutorial” stance when he realized that his attitude toward Lincoln had softened. “At first, I thought that I was going to come in and debunk an icon…but after reading about the icon and thinking about [what he] represented for so many people, myself included, I thought maybe it was about something else.”
Jones, never shy in tackling the political dimension of culture, touches upon issues of race, slavery and war through the prism of Lincoln’s life and enduring legacy. When asked if he still finds issues of racial and sexual identity valid subjects of inquiry, he says flatly: “These issues are never not relevant.” But this affirmation of the personal as political comes does not mean that people should try to understand art solely in the context of the artist’s biography. “[This inclination] to try to see deep into a person’s soul through their work, and vice versa …I don’t know if that’s truthful.”
Perhaps the most intriguing insight Jones’ work presents is the analogy he draws between Lincoln and Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afro-beat revolutionary brought to life in “Fela!.” For him, both were men ahead of their times, who “confronted a fractious world and…were pulled into the agitation washer of history with political forces for and against them.” He goes on to say that, “They are both worthy of having people like me wrestle with them and that’s what I’ve done.”
The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company performs “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” at the Lincoln Center Festival from July 15-17.
Bill T. Jones on “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” [Bill Moyers Journal]