Lincoln's Legacy Celebrated In Dance

As a child, choreographer Bill T. Jones says he was only allowed to love one white man unconditionally: Abraham Lincoln. Now, he has created a piece for the Ravinia Festival to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, called "Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray."

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

A bit later this hour, we'll talk with NPR anti-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston about the arrests in New York and Colorado, and the possible terrorist plot that was uncovered. But first, celebrating the life of arguably our greatest president in dance. To mark the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, Bill T. Jones took on that challenge. Born to a family he describes as Southern potato pickers at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, Jones, a dancer and choreographer, has struggled with idealism and cynicism. There were pictures of four American heroes on the walls of his childhood home: Martin Luther King, Jr., John and Robert Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.

Growing up, Jones has said, Lincoln was the one white man he was allowed to love unconditionally. So it came as an honor and a challenge when the Ravinia Festival commissioned Bill T. Jones to create a dance piece to commemorate Lincoln's birth. That performance, "Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray" made its world premiere last week in the Chicago area. We'll talk about the performance and what Bill T. Jones has learned about our 16th president in a moment, and we want to hear from you. Of all the portrayals and books and movies about Abraham Lincoln, what version of the man most appeals to you? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our Email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bill T. Jones is the co-founder and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Bill T. Jones, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. BILL T. JONES (Co-Founder; Artistic Director, Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company): It's great to be back.

ROBERTS: Congratulations on the opening.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

ROBERTS: I've read that you don't normally accept commissions because you said that art should come directly from the artist. So what was it about this project that made your agree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: That sounds rather high-fallutin', doesn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: No, it's not quite true. A dance company is a big hungry thing. It's hungry on every level and to have someone ask you to do something means that they are going to be providing a reason to make another work. That is the honest answer. I'm reluctant to take works that are assignments: make it about this, make it about that because sometimes that's a strain. But Lincoln was actually a gift to me and I'm still learning from this experience.

ROBERTS: How did the performances go?

Mr. JONES: You know, they went really, really well. You - you have to realize that if this was a Broadway show, the first night would have been the first preview. But because it's the world of dance, we put it up there and we - you know, it's a big sloppy child right now, very beautiful child, but it needs a lot of conditioning, needs a lot of performances. It got good - good notices, not so good notices, but the audiences were wonderful.

It was - both nights we did post-performance discussions, something that I like, where we have my whole group of about, oh, I guess 25 individuals, from the composers to the dancers to Janet, my associate director and Bjorn Amelan, my creative director, all on stage talking about this thing that we've done. And to hear what people had to say and what people - people either, the first night the question we spent the most time on was how did the color yellow work in the piece?

ROBERTS: Really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Yes.

ROBERTS: How did the color yellow work in the piece?

Mr. JONES: Now, do you really want to take a little time to ask me to try to do a visualization?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Is there a brief answer?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: Well, I wish Bjorn Amelan was here, because he is the designer and Liz Prince(ph) is the costume designer. It has something to do with what off - what makes white not look antiseptic. When yellow is against white, it can talk about optimism. I was surprised when Liz Prince, the designer said, oh, for her, yellow can be a lot of things. Yes, it can't be optimism, but it can also be about decay. Who knew? Somebody said it reminded them of ribbons when people come back from war. All of these things were - it was very intriguing conversation.

ROBERTS: Well, it also underscores the many levels at which your performance, the conversation about Lincoln's bicentennial in general, the context of having our first black president; there are just so many different ways into this conversation.

Mr. JONES: I wish there really was. You know what I mean? Because I heard your - your introduction, beautifully stated, but maybe it's because I had been doing that - but when I try to talk about my personal relationship to Lincoln, I speak as a black man. And a black man who comes from the underclass. So, immediately that's the lead. Therefore, you know it's going to be about the problem of race in the country. That's something I have tried to avoid, but somehow or other - so I don't know really how many other ways there really are into this conversation. It seems to be on the mind of the public, this whole idea of a teachable moment.

It seems that everything now - what happened last week with Mr. Obama, the man yelling liar, Mr. Carter - Jimmy Carter - and it's still going on. I read today, of course, reading about myself but also reading the letters. I'm not quite so sure there are that many different ways. I think the man was more complicated than that. You need a constitutional scholar and a historian of a very, very high order to parse out what he really means, but what we go to immediately is this question of race. And it's because of the slavery, Emancipation Proclamation.

I was trying to make a work that actually was about what I think is us. My company is multi-ethnic, multi-racial. We have been our whole life. As you know, Arnie Zane was a five foot four, Italian Jewish man. And he and I were companions in life and in art, and I'm six foot one black man. So, from the beginning we were dealing with difference. And I've tried to keep that spirit. I thought that it would be old news by now. But you know what, it ain't.

ROBERTS: Well, you know, when you - when you say that there are not that many roads into an interviewer we take that as like a red flag to a bull. So, let me try this…

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: We - we Americans, we love our heroes.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: We also have a not particularly attractive habit of tearing them down.

Mr. JONES: Hmm.

ROBERTS: Lincoln has been martyred, beatified. He is a hero for a lot of excellent reasons. He was also a man. How did you struggle or did you struggle, with the reality of a very human man and a hero, not just to the nation, but to you personally. How do you draw that line…

Mr. JONES: Hmm.

ROBERTS: between analysis and hagiography?

Mr. JONES: Well, first of all to take it away from Mr. Lincoln, I thought the work was going to be about dissecting his personality and his biography. But, in fact, what I thought was the biggest jump for me - and it happened only within last few weeks - was to really bring biographies of contemporary people, my company, forward. And actually do this, could be a narcissistic thing, put our compressed biographies in right next to Mr. Lincoln's and see what has changed. How do we feel about war? How do we feel about the notion of big questions? The big question of his age was that of slavery. And all of its ramifications about what the union would be.

Those questions, how does it work when you ask a contemporary person about big questions? That I thought was a very interesting line of investigation and it took it away a bit from - was a Lincoln a good man or not? And it is about what are his values? Is he really about a government of the people, by the people and for the people? Did I get it right? Is he - is that - would that be his one way of capsulizing what's he about; or hard work will make you one the most powerful men in the world? Or honesty and being a charismatic canny lawyer can win you a place in history? Or - and I could go on and on and on. Yes, these are all things we could say about Mr. Lincoln. But what I thought was most important was to use Mr. Lincoln - and I'm sorry to say that word use - and his era as a kind of mirror that we hold up to ourselves.

Mr. JONES: …and his era as a kind of mirror that we hold up to ourselves.

ROBERTS: How does your company work through that process? What's your collaborative process?

Mr. JONES: Well, I talk at them a lot, and I listen to them. We start with movement always, and I remember one of the first days, and working on a version of this work when my Turkish dancer, we had this exercise, I devised it. She was dancing. I said okay, I want you to dance, and now I want you to tell me what you know about Abraham Lincoln.

Now first of all, that's a problem. You've got to be dancing, you know, moving, and now she's got to recollect - and she's Turkish, mind you - and she said something like well, he was not one of your more beautiful presidents. He was very tall, and he had a beard.

I said a what? A beard. Of course, she meant a beard, and he wore a tall hat. Now, this is where we started, mind you.

So of course, then we all were - they were assigned to read one book together as a group. I brought in at least two videos, one on reconstruction and one an overview of Lincoln's life. And every day, I would be reading the paper and saying here's an example of American exceptionalism. This finds its roots in the fact that the world really was impressed that we survived our Civil War, and therefore, we thought that we owed the world democracy.

And a question like that - I'm sorry, a comment like that - would set them thinking: What? What are you talking about? Rehearsals can sometimes stop around things like that. Or there's a mixed-race boy in the company, and I said to him, well, are you - what race do you identify with? Now, this is just to get him to come out. He's very young, and he said neither.

The black men in the company said: When people like you say that, it really bothers me. And I said: What do you mean, people like that? Well, it was break time. So the conversation ended, but I'm saying now that is the atmosphere. I wanted them to know that the things that were alive for Mr. Lincoln were alive for us right now: American exceptionalism. What is a citizen? What are the rights? What is guaranteed in our Constitution? Those sort of things are not real for a lot of people, particularly young people. Those conversations, mixed with the making of movement, sometimes literal, sometimes not, the placement of people, all those things helped them come on board as we set out to make this work.

ROBERTS: And did you think those ideas were translated into the final product?

Mr. JONES: I think a lot of them are there. Well, you know, the ideas are in our conversation right now. The conversation is bristling with them right now, but it would be kind of a boorish thing to analyze our conversation. Look who's talking to whom right now? I'm talking to a woman, a white woman. I'm a black man. We're talking about a man who you, yourself, say still has been martyred, but he is still in, I think, polite company in some places, he's still considered a bit of a not such a nice guy.

There are books about it, and the things that he stood for are still being debated, ideas such as what about the government that truly is of and by the people?

Now, every day, we realize that has almost become a parody of itself, considering corporate interests and what have you. So this is - the Lincoln - the ideas of Lincoln literally are like the air we breathe.

ROBERTS: We're talking with Bill T. Jones about his celebration of Abraham Lincoln in dance. You can join us at 800-989-8255. You can also drop us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. We're talking about the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. Last week, Bill T. Jones unveiled his celebration of Lincoln in dance.

Bill T. Jones is co-founder and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. His current dance project is "Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray." It just opened at Ravinia in the Chicago area.

We also want to hear from you. Of all the portrayals of Abraham Lincoln, what version of the man most appeals to you? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bill T. Jones, among the many challenges of this commission, there is no moment of President Lincoln's life that has gone unstudied. The, you know, vast amount of scholarly material and media representations cover every possible angle, or so it would seem. What do you think there was to add to that body?

Mr. JONES: I don't think I was setting out to add. I was actually setting out to investigate something which is - I wanted to say. It's very important that your listeners understand that this work was as much about Lincoln as it was about making art because we realize that I am a formalist. I am a person that comes from a generation that taught us the greatest thing that you can give to an audience is an awareness of their perceiving mechanism.

Therefore, this piece was about how we get information, what a dance phrase is, what a song that has a certain emotion, like "Glory, Glory Hallelujah," how that song can, over the course of 90 minutes, morph because of who is on stage dancing, because of the lighting, because of the way people move.

Yes, it was about Mr. Lincoln, but there isn't a devil of a lot that I can add to Mr. Lincoln other than something about seeing Mr. Lincoln through the mechanism, the flesh and bones, of this very contemporary art ensemble and the aesthetic that is mine, my associate director Janet Wong(ph) and all the people working.

How do we talk about history, even, in a generation that seems less and less inclined to think about history? I know there are lots of books. I read two years ago that since Lincoln's death, there have been 15,000 volumes written about the man, and as we know, because of his bicentennial year, I think there must be, like, a book a month coming out right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: And that's why, a very important thing that I realized, Bill, you are not here as a historian. You're here to talk about something that ultimately you could probably speak about Alexander the Great if he moved you as Lincoln moves me.

So that is, I think, my answer to that question. I love very much Lincoln and Mary Todd's situation. I love very much Lincoln's sense of humor, which was really hard to get at. We have a little bit of slapstick, and I think it's pretty funny, where the singer, Clarissa(ph), is on the phone, and she's refusing to listen to Lincoln and listen to what her collaborators are doing, and there's this whole argument about her liberty, her freedom, to speak on the phone when she wants to, which is sort of trying to mimic the kind of folksy, down-home, disarming way that Mr. Lincoln was able to get across very complex ideas.

Do you know that story about the shepherd and the sheep and the wolf? That's in the center of a piece, and I won't pretend to do Mr. Lincoln's language, but he's saying something to the effect that the sheep is grateful to the shepherd for keeping the wolf from its throat. The sheep thinks the shepherd has supported his liberty, while the wolf thinks the shepherd has thwarted his sense of liberty, and Lincoln, in his very kind of acerbic, dry way, obviously these two disagree about what liberty really is. It's a very serious thing he's talking about but a very funny thing the way he says it.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Reed(ph) in Tallahassee, Florida. Reed, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

REED (Caller): Yeah, thank you, Rebecca, I appreciate you taking your call. It's interesting that Mr. Jones mentions the humorous thing because that's always been what stood out to me about Abraham Lincoln.

I read Carl Sandburg, "The Prairie Years and the War Years," back when I was in high school, and I think that's the definitive, so far anyway, that I have read on Lincoln, and what stood out in my studies was Lincoln's humor. Even though he was a melancholy man and a very melancholy time in our history, he was able to use humor to kind of ease the burden, I think, of what he was going through.

Mr. JONES: That's very interesting.

REED: And it's very interesting that Mr. Jones was just mentioning that.

ROBERTS: Reed, thank you for your call. Let's hear from Pat in Palo Alto, California. Pat, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAT (Caller): Hi, thank you. I thought that his strength of character and his independent nature stood out for me because as a white man and a president in that era, when there were so many arguments against slavery, and African-Americans really weren't regarded as actually human beings, you know. For a man to decide that he was going to give them freedom and to stand by that, it could have even destroyed his political career.

I thought his strength of character and independence were phenomenal.

Mr. JONES: But could I remember you that you realize that there were people more left than Lincoln around the issue of abolition. Lincoln was late coming to it, you know. That's why I loved him so much because he really learned over the course of his short life.

PAT: Yeah, and I also realize that he did not set out to free the slaves. I mean, it was an economic decision, the Civil War, but the fact that he even considered doing it, I mean, I thought, you know, a lot of people in his situation would have taken the economic tact and just forgotten about those half-human Africans, you know what I mean?

Mr. JONES: But it makes him very human, though, doesn't it? He's disarming. You know, that's what I resent right now, and I see every politician who runs for office in some ways wants to play the Lincoln card, if I can use that term, that oh, I'm just like you are, folks. I'm just a plain guy, you know.

Well, he was the real deal, but now it's almost become an affectation, that you have to be just a guy you want to go have a beer with. So we have this kind of anti-intellectual feeling.

Let's not blame it on Mr. Lincoln. Let's blame it on - well, we'll do another show on that sometime.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Craig(ph) in Des Moines who says: One way into this conversation may to talk about physical bodies, not necessarily black bodies or white bodies but the body that labors, moves, dances. Lincoln the rail-splitter wasn't just a thinker, a lawyer or a president. He labored with his body. He did what any modern person would probably consider arduous and even degrading labor. Is dance, as a celebration of the body and what it can do in an aesthetic context, re-inserting the laboring body of our most abstracted president into our notion of politics and power?

Mr. JONES: Whoa. Who is this? A philosopher-critic, I suspect, right? Well, dance - that's just the question. Is dance an elite activity for beautiful, young bodies, or is it a democratized endeavor that anybody is allowed to do?

These are questions that we have been wrestling with for at least the last 100 years of modern dance, and the verdict is still out. Right now, I think we're in a very conservative period where dance is something, as you would see on television, people doing competition and doing sexy, sultry moves together, and/or is dance something that is done only in marginalized corners of the culture and is almost related to, like, taking cod liver oil, something that you know is good for you, but you sure don't like to take it.

That's a very astute observation. For us, we would like to have it be a picture of a community of people who yes, they do sweat and struggle together, but you get the sense that they are putting their disparate selves at the service of some kind of vision. Is it about beauty? Is it about a view of the social contract that we would like to have as opposed to having? All of those things, we're struggling for, and lord knows, we're not there yet in my company.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jackie(ph) in Oklahoma City. Jackie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACKIE (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. The whole notion of Lincoln, I see Lincoln as, you know, having been a great man, but being an African-American, I'm certainly not a fan of his. When you consider the fact that he was, I guess like his contemporaries, he said that I am not now nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the black and white races. I am not nor, nor ever have been, of making voters or jurors of negroes nor of qualifying them to hold office nor of inter-marriages with white people. There is a physical difference between white and black races, which will forever forbid the two races living together on social and political equality. And then he sums it up with: There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man.

And I think that Lincoln satisfies the guilt of America in that they can point to him and make him seem as though he's this great emancipator. But the fact that he felt that emancipation was the only way to save the nation is what motivated him. It had nothing to do with humanity. It had nothing to do with equality.

I think if we're going to hold up someone with the character that we assigned to Lincoln, then we should go to those abolitionists and those no-name people who really believe that.

Mr. JONES: But you know, the one thing I would say and I think is really astute: First of all, and I don't have the figures in front of me, when did he say it, those - he said everything you've said. Which…

JACKIE: 1858.

Mr. JONES: Pardon?

JACKIE: 1858.

Mr. JONES: 1858. And he was elected in 1861, correct? At least he became president. And he was re-elected in 1865. He grew, he continued to grow. You know about when Frederick Douglass heard on a very important address and he said, oh, my friend, Mr. Douglass, what did you think of this speech? And Frederick Douglas said he felt it was a sacred effort. Frederick Douglass was very tough on Lincoln, but I think they actually took the measure of each other as men, ultimately.

Now, I'm not trying to add anything to his hagiography, but let's be sure. Just like Malcolm X, when people say Malcolm X was a divider and a racist, no, no, no. Malcolm X had very, very strong positions. He was a man of a certain experience. But as you see, as he was moving toward his tragic early death, he was also expanding his understanding of what human was - humankind was and what connected us as opposed to what only divided us.

Let's give Mr. Lincoln the benefit of the doubt as well. I do think he made quite a journey, and that in and of itself, has earned a certain respect on my part. And I think he should be - teach his whole life and then let's talk about the ability to change attitudes. Let's talk with our children about changing attitudes. Let's talk right now to people about gay rights.

You know, let's talk. People can tell you - very level-headed people - why it is just wrong, why it end - but we think, but I personally think, that in another 20, 30, 40, 50 years, that attitude is going to be one that we will almost look at in the way we looked at Mr. Lincoln's attitude growing up as a man of his time, a Southern white man of his time. Attitudes can change. It is it my faith and maybe nothing more than that.

ROBERTS: My guest is Bill T. Jones, co-founder and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. We're talking about his current dance project, "Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray," inspired by the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. It debuted just this weekend at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago. And it's a project that Mr. Jones has been working on for the better part of two years.

You can join us at 800-989-8255, or send us e-mail, talk@npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's hear from Jerry(ph) in Redding, California. Jerry, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JERRY (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hello.

JERRY: The book that I found that most marked Lincoln was, I believe, it's 1866, "April 1866: The Month That Saved America." Unfortunately, I don't recall the name of the author. But the thing in that book that struck me, because I'm a man whose family was split by the Civil War. My great grandfather - great, great grandfather fought for the North and his brother and one brother went to the South, in Virginia.

And the moral - the book shows a lot of the moral struggles between Clinton and - I mean, between Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, with Grant and his struggles on how to make decisions that were going to honor the nation and bound the nation at the same time respect the liberties of all the people in the country including the African-Americans as well as the whites.

ROBERTS: Thank you for your call, Jerry. In general, Bill Jones, about blending art and politics, I'm going to quote you back to yourself, which I know is a pretty horrifying thing but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: I can handle it.

ROBERTS: You said: I suppose maybe I could use great music and make well-constructed dance visualizations of it and that will be satisfying to many people, but it's not the way I want dance. I want dance to be scragglier than that. I want to participate in the world of ideas.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm. Yes, and what about that profound quote?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Well, why is it unsatisfying to you to not have ideas behind a dance? Why not just make beautiful movement to terrific music?

Mr. JONES: Oh, no. If I come on that way, it's totally wrongheaded. I don't mean to say that. When I look at - my favorite choreographers are George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. George Balanchine was, I would dare say, he was the inventor of the plotless ballet, which is an abstract ballet. Merce Cunningham, who just died recently, was known to say, dance can't be abstract because bodies are not abstract and dance is based on bodies.

So these were incredibly thoughtful men. Oh, no, no. There are thoughts -conceptually, there are thoughts. I think what I was trying to say in that is that there's an assumption sometime is that dance is the thing which few - a couple of your callers back was sort of trying to poke us that. It is the thing that is an anesthetized event which unfortunately oftentimes is for an elite.

I think Michelle Obama when she spoke at American Ballet Theater shortly after the inauguration was trying to say something about making the dance more available to all people. Yes, that is one of its goals, but I think the dance has something - if you think about the body as a site of all knowledge, and the body is a terrifying thing. Now, can you embrace that what is beautiful in the body and what is terrifying in the body? The body is prey to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, one of them being gravity and another one being old age. So, dance is actually something that we have to approach with much more respect in the sense of what can it do, what can it say about our condition?

And one way I like to do that is to meet with that other most tangible intangible which is language and the fact that you and I both say liberty but we mean different things or blue and we both mean different things or red and we both mean different things. How can that language against a field of dancers be brought forward and our attitudes being expressed? I know we're short of time.

I did a piece to the wonderful Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor - I guess I can say it on the radio - it was called "The Artificial Nigger." Her story was called that. Now, you can imagine, that was difficult for people. But that story was written in 1955, I think. I said to my black brothers and sisters who were concerned about that title, I said, look on that stage. Are there any niggers on that stage? Now, there are people who are black, but do niggers exist except in our minds? Language can do that. And language and movement do that very well together.

ROBERTS: Bill T. Jones, co-founder and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. The piece is called "Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray" inspired by the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. He joined us from our New York bureau.

Thank you so much, Mr. Jones.

Mr. JONES: Thank you for having me.

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