“When you read about Lincoln, you find so many points of view that you have to locate Lincoln within your own sensibility, withing your own world view, within your own class, within your own race. That’s what we do with icons.”
Choreographer Bill T. Jones has been thinking Lincoln for years now.
Commissioned to create a dance to mark the bicentennial of the birth of the 16th American president, Jones read book after book, visited Lincoln-related historic sites and contemplated the man and his legacy.
When he first set out, he planned to call the piece “A Great Man? A Great Man,” and to take what he calls a “prosecutorial approach,” taking Lincoln to task.
“There’s a lively community of debunkers, I’m not calling them crazies, who say he was a warmonger, a racist, a politician, a corporate running dog,” Jones says over tea in a Nyack patisserie.
“I thought, ‘I’ll be tough-minded, too. I won’t give in to that 5-year-old who just loves Lincoln as Santa Claus.’ But after reading about him, as icons go, he’s a benign icon. I think he stood for all the right things, a self-educated curious intellect, a moral thinker, physically strong.”
Asked to create one dance, Jones came up with three: “Serenade/The Proposition,” two works in one setting; and “Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray,” which comes to Purchase College on Friday, the 201st anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
The latter piece takes its title from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: “Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”
Friday’s performance is a homecoming of sorts. The first time “Fondly” was put on its feet was at a weeklong technical workout in the Concert Hall in August, in preparation for the premiere at the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago.
Jones will herald the piece with a visit to the Purchase campus on Thursday for a Performance-in-Context discussion at 6 p.m., in the Repertory Theatre.
There’s plenty to talk about when it comes to Lincoln and Jones’ work inspired by him.
The words of “Fondly” are the words of Lincoln and Walt Whitman. They are also the words of Jones and members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, as they talk about Lincoln as they find him.
“When you read about Lincoln, you find so many points of view that you have to locate Lincoln within your own sensibility, withing your own world view, within your own class, within your own race,” Jones says. “That’s what we do with icons.”
What Jones does with this particular icon is to track his life, his debates, his speeches, his love and then to examine those elements through the prism of contemporary times, to the place of race in our modern world.
It’s Lincoln in the age of Obama.
Jones, a whirlwind of creative energy who calls Valley Cottage home, is in the middle of a tornado of creative output.
He unveiled “Fondly” at Ravinia in September.
In November, the Tony-winning choreographer of “Spring Awakening” was christened a Broadway director, shepherding the Afrobeat musical “FELA!” to the Eugene O’Neill Theater, where it drew enthusiastic reviews.
Jones wrote on his blog last May, as he continued to shape and form his Lincoln triptych: “A dance theater work about Mr. Lincoln as I conceive it comes with some obstacles. They might be roughly delineated by these two familiar categories: form and content. Formally, I remain suspicious of the biopic narrative and yet, if there was ever an individual and an era, which cried out for a narrative it is this man and that time.”
All three Lincoln works are now touring the country Lincoln once led; like that country, the work is ever evolving. The show that premiered at Ravinia is not the show that comes to Purchase. Jones is forever tinkering, tweaking, tightening.
“Fondly” is not a piece of pure dance: Jones has created a dance-theater-sound hybrid.
It occupies a stage, yes, and it is largely an ambitious dance piece, but there are spoken and sung elements that expand the scope of the work. All of this occurs among white columns, within the folds of set designer Bjorn Amelan’s elegant white curtain which serves as a backdrop onto which words and lights are projected.
For Jones, even a hybrid piece is rooted in the body and movement.
“Even though I am a very theatrical choreographer, at the crux of it all is a preoccupation with formal aspects of body,” he says. “That comes from my training as a postmodern choreographer. Ultimately, it’s less about mime and even storytelling than it is about articulating the body in space and time.
“The body in space and time now meets a historical topic. The purpose of our work is to present a sort of a mirror of that era in our era now. And the body is the thing that connects us.”
The music includes some of Lincoln’s favorite folk songs, and the work of Felix Mendelssohn, which, Jones says, was played at the president’s inauguration and on the funeral train as it made its somber way back to Springfield in April 1865.
How, then, should ticketholders approach an evening that isn’t entirely dance and isn’t entirely theater or music?
“I think they should go in very relaxed, because from the moment they sit in their seat, there’s information in the air, there’s a sound score,” Jones says.
“The quick ears in the room are going to hear an exploded catalogue of everything the evening is going to have in it.”
When the dancers enter the space, that catalogue will expand to include them and the audience, Jones says. Then the audience will begin to make connections.
“The human brain is always trying to make connections,” Jones says. “This is not made in such a way that the audience is passive.
“This is more like walking into an art gallery. Walk in front of a Robert Rauschenberg combine in the late ’60s and you see a goat inside of a tire covered with paint and he’s standing on a platform that has strange things written on it. And you stand there and you scratch your head and either you walk away or you say, ‘OK, goat inside tire with paint on it.’ You start participating in recreating what it could possibly mean.
“I would say to them: ‘Come in, relax, with the feeling of exploring something. Start looking for evidence when you walk in. Listen to what’s going on. And when it’s over, when you leave the theater that night — if you didn’t walk out on me — or the next day at breakfast, what sticks? What things do you remember?’ Because there’s a lot of repetitions and permutations. That is the fun for me.”
What: “Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray” in its New York premiere
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 12.
Where: Purchase College Performing Arts Center, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase.
Tickets: $42.50 to $72.50.
Meet Bill T. Jones Bill T. Jones will attend a Performance-in-Context discussion at 6 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 11 in the Repertory Theatre. Free and open to the public. For details, call 914-251-6200.
‘Lincoln, Life-Size’ The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., opens its newest exhibition, “Lincoln, Life-Size,” on Feb. 13. The exhibition features photographs of the 16th president reproduced full size, alongside 19th-century images and artifacts. The Bruce plans public programs linked to the exhibit. At 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, Conn. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays; closed Mondays and major holidays — but open to the public on President’s Day, Feb. 15, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 203-869-0376, or go to www.brucemuseum.org.
Top photo by Seth Harrison: Bill T. Jones discusses “Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray” at a Nyack patisserie last month. The piece gets its New York premiere on Friday, the 201st anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
Second photo by Paul Goode: A moment from “Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray.”
Third photo by Alexander Gardner, courtesy Bruce Museum: Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 8, 1863, in Washington, D.C.