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Honest Abe, Avant-garde

Gay, black, and a descendant of slaves, the Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones mined his complex feelings about Abraham Lincoln to create a capstone dance for the Ravinia Festival

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Bill T. Jones

Bill T. Jones is not given to entertaining frivolous questions. Once, a reporter asked Jones—who bumps around a Rockland County, New York, house when he’s not in Manhattan creating avant-garde dance—which he liked better, the Mets or Yankees. “Neither,” he snapped. “I hate baseball.” Let’s put it another way: The New York Times didn’t call Jones, 57, the “political lion of modern dance” because he choreographs steps for sugarplum fairies.

Happily for Jones, heavy questions aplenty came with his newest project, Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray, which debuts at the Ravinia Festival on September 17th. The full-evening dance work, about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, “is trying to talk about the questions that always confront a democratic society and definitely confront us now,” Jones says. “What is equality? What does a government owe us? Think gay marriage. Illegal immigrants. There is a great deal of uncertainty right now about these questions.”

A lithe six feet tall, Jones cuts a memorable presence. On winning Best Choreography for Spring Awakening at the 2007 Tony Awards, he joyfully ignored the stairs and vaulted himself onto the stage for his trophy. Last year, rave reviews showered his Off Broadway musical Fela!, about the musician and Nigerian political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Many of Jones’s past dances have been defiantly abstract, audience-be-damned works that even he has called “excessive.” His Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land had local volunteers at tour stops appearing naked on stage; his raw 1994 work Still/Here showed video of people with terminal illnesses. Says Jones, laughing: “I was not lying around thinking about Abraham Lincoln, just dying to make a piece about him.”

Photograph by Peter Hapak

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