Ravinia Festival was the ideal venue for the premiere of Bill T. Jones’ newest work, “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray,” which was commissioned by Ravinia and premiered on September 17th. Using a variety of mediums, the evocative dance theater piece, performed by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dane Company, used Abraham Lincoln as a lens through which to view today’s society and questions.
The show opened with a solo singer, Clarissa Sinceno, singing a chilling spiritual that set the tone for the multi-layered show, which frequently featured accompaniment of American folk music and sound affects of distant trains, a symbolic linking of the past to the present. Act I of the performance featured various narrations of a stories, each accompanied by a solo dancer who gracefully inhabited the text. Among the tales of seemingly ordinary people were the stories belonging to Abraham Lincoln’s, his wife, Mary Todd, and Bill T. Jones himself. Lincoln’s biography was instantly recognizable, and the dancer who portrayed him, Paul Matteson, danced with fluid grace and strength. Each narrative began with “He/she was born…” and struck me as a different imagining of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait.
The choreography did not mime or mimic the text, but the movement seemed to move through the text as if using the words as a brief catalyst for bodily inspiration. There were a few instances where the words and movement harmonized together in a stirring moment; Asli Bulbul, the dancer playing Mary Todd, used a gesture of covering her face in her hands, when it was told of her son’s passing, a gesture that was later used by the company to signify war and death. Among the narratives of these historic figures were also the biographies of every day people. One dancer played a present-day soldier who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the text told of his conflicted opinions of war and service to our country. Another played a small-town woman opposed to change. Another biography told the story of the dancer himself, and his struggles to fit in with the classical model of the traditional American. Each story harkened back to Lincoln’s story of the quintessential Midwestern man who became one of the country’s most famous heroes. Bill T. Jones’ narrative reminds us how he is the great-grandson of slaves, and how the taste is still bitterly with him. The many dimensions of the literal narrative and more abstract tale in the form of dance allowed the audience to be absorbed in story in an incredibly engaging way.
Set and media also added dimension to the work. A large, circular netting enclosed the majority of the stage, and while the featured soloist and orator were outside of this net, the rest of the company would be less prominently featured behind this frosted lens. It is my interpretation that these dancers represented the whole of a community, while the soloist came forth to represent the individual and his or her story. Lighting is also used to create ghostly silhouettes, which was coupled with the sound of distant trains (both as purposeful sound affects, as well as the occasional live accompaniment of the Ravinia Metra).
Another truly beautiful aspect of Jones’ work were the live musicians, who took on the amazingly difficult role of both providing hauntingly beautiful melodies as well as tying the whole theater piece together. The musicians provided accompaniment for the dancing, and even became more intimately involved at times by coming on stage. Also, in between each narrative, a folk or spiritual song was used, and engaged the whole company in athletic dance that used ballet, modern, and folk dance vocabularies.
Act 2 was entitled “The War,” and demonstrated a break down of this calm story-telling setting. With Lincoln’s assassination at the end of Act 1, the second act brought this violence to life. The dancers struggled with each other by breaking linked arms, diving wildly into each other’s bodies, spinning, and jumping with amazing athleticism and technicality. The dancers also took microphones and assume a shouting debate about freedom and how we should be allowed to express it. The musicians broke out into a garage-band style of loud chaos, organized solely by its complex meter and common key.
Other text and poems were also spoken throughout the piece. Featured prominently was Walt Whitman’s Poem of the Body, which expressed an itemized list of body parts. The first time it was used, at the beginning of the show, it was a lens to view the stunning soloist, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, as she gracefully allowed us to view her dancing body with admiration. Later in the second act, inserted into Whitman’s poem were other more violent words that highlight the decay of civility during war. At the finale of the piece, we were left with Mary Todd in her black mourning dress, and a solo dancer in a bright spotlight, seemingly representing the present woman or man who dreams of having a legacy.
Jones’ choreography was graceful and fluid, and the dancers carried with them a sense of presence in their bodies and physical strength. Jones demonstrates that a ballet-based vocabulary is not antiquated, and can powerfully describe human emotion.
This production was different than other overtly political work of Jones’ in the way that it was successfully both accessible and provocative. “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray,” whose title echoes the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, certainly was a lot to digest. It was at times a dance performance, at others, a rock opera, a play, a live concert, or political debate.
Fall was clearly on the wind at the Ravinia Pavilion, and it reminds us of an election season nearly a year behind us. Jones caused us to question how far we have come since 1862, when the Emancipation Proclamation was written, and how far we must still travel.
“Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” continues to tour nationally and internationally through July, 2010.