Bill T. Jones is in step with Lincoln, now

On a dreary, gray day in March 2008, choreographer Bill T. Jones spoke to a small group of well-wishers in the home of businesswoman Desiree Rogers on Chicago's Near North Side. Tinkling ice, urbane chitchat and cognoscenti goodwill defined the party up to that point, Rogers' smart modern art collection the backdrop. Then Jones took the floor to discuss his assignment to create a full-length dance-theater piece about Abraham Lincoln for the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill.

"I want to feel Lincoln in this very room," he said, looming in the hush that followed as a momentary conjurer or even seance medium. "I want to get some sense of his actual presence among us right here and now."

The room was hot with possibilities, not just artistic ones. Then-Sen. Barack Obama had stood in the same rooms months earlier at the start of his campaign, though the nomination was not yet won. But Illinois seemed poised to send another politician to greatness, just as it was about to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of the one who gives the state its nickname.

Jones' conjuring act was not so fanciful. Obama is in the White House, where Rogers is social secretary. And Jones' "Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray" premiered recently at Ravinia, an arena Jones once considered the epitome of an establishment approval he'd never win. "The highly regarded home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra," he thought of it. "That's a place I took to be alien to my work."

Now the work is touring, with stops scheduled this week in Santa Barbara and Irvine.

Like Lincoln, Jones' life arc is packed with drama. The son of Florida migrant workers, he survived the death of early partner-collaborator Arnie Zane to gain 1980s renown irking the mainstream and re-injecting social commentary into a highly abstract form. He debated God, homophobia and racism with community preachers and his own mother in one celebrated work.

Today, at 57, he's one of the most admired choreographers of his generation -- and one of the busiest.

He won the Tony Award for his choreography for "Spring Awakening," and, when his production of "Fela!" opens in November, he'll join that small pantheon -- Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse among them -- boasting the conjoined title "director-choreographer" on a Broadway show.

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Keeping it sharp

Typically, in discussing "Fondly Do We Hope," Jones expressed the most concern about losing his edge, about delivering a work too soft and easy. "I don't want this to be a Black History Month piece," he said to Ravinia President Welz Kauffman in their first conversation in January 2007 in Newark, N.J. "Lincoln was the only white man I was allowed to love unconditionally growing up. But he was also hiding in plain sight. Sure, he's on the $5 bill. But who is he? There's George Washington and Ben Franklin too, connections from third-grade social studies class, and at some point you put them in your head in a file of underpinnings, 'my sense of the world.'

"But as an adult," Jones continues, "what does this man Lincoln have to do with me?"

The complex, multidisciplinary piece features dancers, an actor and an ensemble of musicians who've contributed to the score. The choreography and text are by Jones and his associate, Janet Wong, and historical passages are mixed with lines from the dancers themselves.

"I'm trying to use my young company as a test community to represent the modern world," Jones said during rehearsals. "Take a big question of Lincoln's day, the expansion of slavery. 'Well, slavery is obviously bad,' one of the dancers answered at one point. But how does that relate to treatment of the underclass today? I've had to nudge them at times."

Jones asked the dancers to write their own brief autobiographies to mimic a storybook biography of Lincoln, as in "born in a log cabin, self-educated, married Mary Todd" and so forth -- their young lives reduced to historical headlines. Jones wrote one of himself too. In what Jones calls a Cuisinart process, past and present, quotation and song were tossed into the mixer, juxtaposing then and now, Lincoln and ourselves, slavery and issues of our own time.

"There's a section called 'the debates,' in which I'm trying to drive home the suggestion of ferocious discourse. Look at healthcare and all the shouting going on. Back in Lincoln's time, the idea of a black and white person marrying was controversial. But we mingle texts from then and now, so when someone shouts, 'I can marry anybody I want,' it may be from Lincoln's day about interracial marriage, or it could be a quote from now about same-sex marriage."

Lincoln's own words and those of poet Walt Whitman are employed, while the original music is supplemented by such classics as "Annie Laurie" and a reputed Lincoln favorite called "Weevily Wheat."

Of course, there is dance. "Dance is a visual medium, primarily," Jones said. "But my take is that it has to be a medium also driven by thought and language. That's my risk and, when it works, my contribution."

"His work is in your face and elegant; it's political and yet pure dance; it's both edgy and comforting at the same time," Kauffman said.

"Bill's work hits me viscerally. It hits me personally. That's what I wanted our Lincoln celebration to be. Forward-looking and personal, not looking back and reverent."

"What we love about democracy is that people can disagree," Jones said. "We also know the cost. Lincoln's nasty debate ended in civil war. There will be quite a cost if we pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage."

Jones is no stranger to ferocious discourse. When he and Zane appeared in the '80s in Chicago, they were famously heckled -- a rare instance of art-house bad manners.

One critic chided his 1995 "Still/Here," about sufferers of terminal illness, as victim art. Jones says he set out with no agenda; he simply couldn't ignore what he saw. "What, you don't think the great-grandson of a slave has a problem with the world?" he says of his thinking in his early years. "I talked about the world as I saw it, and people would say, 'Sounds like he's complaining.' "

Now he seems a tad more hopeful. "The night Obama was elected, I was standing in the kitchen and found myself weeping, uncontrollably," Jones said. "What happened? I was the one aloof all through the campaign."

And then he thought of his late mother. "I suddenly had this desire to go call her, to tell her about the election, and that's a signal. When you want to call your mother, you know something momentous is going on."

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