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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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Spring Awakening
Jones won a Tony for his choreography for Spring Awakening

 

Someone else was: Welz Kauffman, the boyishly exuberant president and CEO of Ravinia. He wanted to commission a new work to cap off the festival’s summer-long Lincoln bicentennial celebration, which included the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and an original piece by the jazz musician Ramsey Lewis.

A new dance seemed right for Ravinia, with its rich legacy of commissioning work from luminaries such as Ruth Page. “Bill T. Jones was at the top of my list,” Kauffman says. “I felt he had the right combination of artistic temperament and quality. . . . He seemed like the right person to take on the complexities of all that Lincoln is.” When Kauffman flew to New York three years ago to present the idea, the choreographer’s reaction—at least internally, as Jones recalls—was, “Oh, my God, what?” Worried Kauffman might want some Disneyesque biopic complete with stovepipe hats, his response was reserved. (Kauffman’s take on the meeting? “I remember [his] staff sort of tittering,” he says.)

Kauffman flew back to Chicago without a commitment, but not before giving Jones a copy of the Lincoln book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals. Soon, Jones says, he realized that while he’d never considered tackling the Great Emancipator, “I should have thought of it—because much of my work has been trying to understand justice and my dilemma as an American, as a black person, as a gay person.”

Lincoln’s promise of freedom for all, and the century it took before the United States enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act, were clear entry points for Jones. A child of migrant fieldworkers, he was three years old when his parents left Florida and its Jim Crow laws to settle in upstate New York. His grandmother’s mother was a slave, and in Jones’s household the 16th president loomed as a mythic hero. “Lincoln was the only white man I was allowed to love unconditionally,” he says in a documentary by Kartemquin Films, to be aired next year on PBS’s American Masters series.

Attending SUNY Binghamton on a football scholarship, he quickly fell in love with dance—and with a white man: a Jewish student, Arnie Zane. They spent the next two decades together and in 1982 formed the still thriving Harlem-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. To Jones, their inability to marry legally represents one of many ways Lincoln’s vision for a country of equality has failed. (Zane died in Jones’s arms in 1988, from complications of AIDS.) “I come from the sixties generation,” he says, “and we were all ‘free at last, free at last.’ I believed it, at every level. But why has it been so difficult?” Much of Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray is Jones expressing, if not reconciling, the views of Lincoln he had as a boy and as a midlife liberal cynic—one who, he has said, “has very few heroes.”

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Photograph: Paul Kolnik

 

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