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Dance review: Bill T. Jones' 'Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray'

October 7, 2009 |  4:38 pm

BillTJones

Reporting from Santa Barbara

Our new president's interest in the lore and legacy of Abraham Lincoln is not exactly a state secret. So when the most prominent and perennially controversial black choreographer on the planet makes a full-evening work about Honest Abe and the link between the dangerous turbulence of his time and ours, head for the storm cellar.

Commissioned by the Ravinia Festival as part of its Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration, Bill T. Jones' “Fondly Do We Hope ... Fervently Do We Pray” arrived at the Granada Theatre on Tuesday as part of the UCSB Arts and Lectures season. It moves to the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Friday.

The title comes from Lincoln's second inaugural address, the performance from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (without Jones on this tour), the sensibility from an artist of color who sees how the furious public schism over slavery in Lincoln's lifetime is a boil that bursts, night after night, in the ugly town meetings we see on CNN.

Indeed, “The Boil That Bursts” is the title of one of the sections of this 80-minute work in which dancers portraying their contemporaries are shadowed by ghostly projections of predecessors in period costumes -- the present never free of the past. 

The gauze oval enclosure designed by Bjorn Amelan and the video images by Janet Wong sometimes make the dancers within look shrouded in mist. But elsewhere the designers project written quotations, song lyrics and opinions on top of the dancers so that every move is overwhelmed with data.

Beginning with an exquisite solo for Shayla-Vie Jenkins to “The Song of Solomon,” the dancers sometimes escape to a side platform to be alone, as themselves or as someone they're portraying. But not for long. Because the work is essentially a densely layered theater piece in which dance is merely one component and is often subordinated to the wide-ranging texts (usually spoken by Jamyl Dobson) and vibrant score (played live) by Jerome Begin, George Lewis Jr. and Christopher Antonio William Lancaster. Traditional music supplements their contributions.

Jones provides capsule biographies of Lincoln (danced by Paul Matteson) and his wife, Mary Todd (Asli Bulbul).  After a fragmentary evocation of war, she becomes another ghost, prowling the Grecian columns inside Amelan's oval as “The Song of Solomon” returns to assure us that “love is strong as death.”

But their presence never outweighs the unnamed living Americans whom Dobson describes: “Of course slavery was wrong,” he says, summarizing the feelings of a woman born in 1939. “But she misses the time when things were clear and the world all made sense. Nowadays anything goes. If this new president makes a big mess of things, don't blame her. She didn't vote for him.” Nor did most of those who turn up for a nasty shouting match about property rights, states' rights and marriage rights.

Another living American was born in 2009 and speaks to us more calmly from the future about Lincoln's “big questions” and “unfinished work.”  Clearly to Jones and his collaborators, Lincoln was and is a historical necessity -- as our 16th president and as a continuing inspiration for people to risk confronting entrenched racism, corruption and self-interest.

But Jones' complex, nonlinear creation sometimes barely avoids getting lost in its own effects -- as poetry by Walt Whitman, anonymous spirituals and the sound of Lincoln's legendary ghost train merge with video spectacle, moving scenery and surging group choreography. Happily, “Fondly/Fervently” holds its focus through the talent and dedication of the performers plus Jones' powerful conviction that it takes many stories and many sources to tell Americans who they are and where they've been.

A house divided? More like splintered -- but still standing and under repair. And Lincoln himself  reminds us more than once (through Dobson's voice) that  “the government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.”

-- Lewis Segal

“Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray.” Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. 8 p.m. Friday. $23, (949) 854-4646.

Photo: Asli Bulbul, Paul Matteson and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company perform "Fondly Do We Hope ... Fervently Do We Pray" during its preparation for the Ravinia Festival. Credit: Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune.

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