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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
Jones at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

Yet with age comes wisdom, too. This experimentalist, whom The New Yorker once chided for the “victim art” of Still/Here and its dying subjects, has wisely created a multimedia extravaganza that actually entertains. “I’m aiming for a broad audience,” Jones says. The challenge of engaging the Ravinia crowd in Lincoln’s story has the former dancer projecting text and video onto massive white-curtain panels; using lighthearted storytelling by two actors; and employing music ranging from that inspired by Mendelssohn to American folk, along with recitations from Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Lincoln’s speeches.

“Don’t be afraid to be corny,” said Bjorn Amelan, his partner and collaborator, during a debate about an opening that Jones worried was “too Star Trek.” The end result is a multilayered production of dance and theatre. “I would like people to walk away looking at each other, maybe smiling,” Jones says. “I would like parents and children to have a lively discussion, and people of different races to talk.”

Ultimately, though, the dance—which will travel to 13 cities in its first year of touring and, likely, to Europe and Japan—is personal to Jones. “I’m leading with the heart,” he warns. Born in 1952—“two years before Brown v. Board of Education,” as he likes to point out—Jones is looking back at America’s 19th century from 2009, and he is wise enough to admit that he doesn’t have it all figured out. Quoting a friend, he says, “A good leader doesn’t have to have all the answers, but a good leader should know how to ask the right questions.”

GO: Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray runs Sept. 17th and 19th at RAVINIA, 200 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park; 847–266–5100, Ravinia.org


Photograph: Russell Jenkins


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