Abraham Lincoln would have made a lousy dance partner.
The 16th president was too tall, too gangly and too preoccupied to spend much time cutting a rug in the White House parlor. But as choreographer Bill T. Jones sees it, Lincoln's story is one that should be retold time and time again, even through dance.
"I was always a Lincoln fan," Jones said, from his home in Sante Fe, N.M. "The more I read about him, the more I fell in love with him. The more I was moved by his story."
Growing up African-American during the civil rights era, Jones was taught that Lincoln was the only white man it was acceptable to admire unconditionally. Now as a 57-year-old history buff who also happens to be one of America's most established choreographers, Jones holds Lincoln in even higher regard.
"My position, after four years of reading and living Lincoln, is that Lincoln is a story we tell ourselves," Jones said. "More importantly, he is a story we tell our children."
To commemorate the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, Jones created a pair of dances exploring Lincoln's life and times. Friday at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will perform "Fondly Do We Hope ... Fervently Do We Pray," an evening-length work commissioned by Chicago's Ravania Festival.
Jones praised Carolina Performing Arts for agreeing to book the new dance production long before it premiered.
"Fondly" debuted in September. Two months later, "The Serenade/The Proposition" premiered at the University of Massachusetts. Neither piece garnered rapturous reviews - critics found fault with the "scattershot" structure of "Fondly" - but there's general agreement that both works represent Jones as a frontiersman of modern dance, melding multimedia, movement and live music in a way few other choreographers can.
Throughout "Fondly," the dancers perform surrounded by a scrim that functions as a screen for projections. Sculptor Bjorn G. Amelan, Jones' partner and creative director, designed the sets; associate artistic director Janet Wong created the projections; and music director Christopher Antonio William Lancaster leads a live ensemble through the folk-rock score.
"You've got to present dance that delivers spectacle, that's going to deliver meaning, and that's going to deliver intellectual rigor," Jones said.
Ghost of Lincoln
You could say "Fondly" is a spectacle about a specter: the ghost of Lincoln as he haunts American history and popular culture.
During the hour-plus performance, Lincoln is represented by a dancer dressed in white, an actor who also serves as narrator, and a silhouette on the screen wearing that unmistakable stovepipe hat.
Mary Todd Lincoln, that Southern socialite and shopaholic, is present too, and the pas de deux performed by the dancers portraying her and Lincoln provide one of the evening's most poignant moments.
Like many of Jones' recent creations, "Fondly" does not follow a linear narrative. So there are references to actual events - a slave auction, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the assassination at Ford's Theater - but viewers are also asked to connect historical conflicts with contemporary issues such as gay marriage, the Iraq war and whether Barack Obama will succeed as president of the United States.
Jones pulled his title from Lincoln's second inaugural address, a rhetorical plea for the "mighty scourge of war" to speedily pass away. Six weeks after proclaiming his fond hopes for Reconstruction, Lincoln would be shot, and just how he planned to restore peace became a great American speculation.
A professor's view
Reginald F. Hildebrand, a professor of history and Afro-American studies at UNC-CH, is one of many academics who wrestle with "what ifs" about Lincoln. There's little evidence, Hildebrand said, that Lincoln's Reconstruction plan would have granted full civil rights to slaves. But that's because the plan wasn't written down.
"It is entirely appropriate that an attempt to address this question is being approached by an artist," Hildebrand said. "There are truths beyond facts that artists can deal with much more fully than historians."
Cultural minefields have been Jones' choreographic gold mines since the 1970s, when he and his late partner, Arnie Zane, begin performing duets. In the 1980s, they tackled not-so-sexy topics like the Freedom of Information Act.
Jones also became know for his unconventional collaborations with other icons of African-American culture, including soprano Jessye Norman, drummer Max Roach and author Toni Morrison. He saw himself as part of "a fierce community of creators" performing for small crowds in downtown Manhattan.
Uptown, some people still didn't know who Jones was.
"I had no desire, in and of itself, to work on Broadway," Jones said.
Then in 2006, producers came calling. Would Jones accept choreographer duties for a little pop-rock musical about sexually repressed, 19th century German teenagers? Jones agreed, at the time thinking the job would help him earn a living. "Spring Awakening" earned him his first Tony.
Coming soon to DPAC
More than three years after its Broadway premiere, "Spring Awakening" remains one of the hottest musicals on the road. The show will stop at the Durham Performing Arts Center on March 2-7. Jones is also back on Broadway, this time as choreographer and director of "Fela!" a song-and-dance celebration of the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.
Jones is the only choreographer to create dances about the father of Afrobeat and the author of the Gettysburg Address in the same year. And while The New York Times chief theater critic says there should be dancing in the streets every night after "Fela!" gets out, patrons who see "Fondly" in Chapel Hill will likely leave in a contemplative mood.
"A good portion of the audience is profoundly moved by 'Fondly,'" Jones said. "It's a gorgeous performance, the dancers are fantastic, and I hope we can get an audience there to appreciate it."