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Dance That Matters

Bill T. Jones at Alverno College

Feb. 24, 2010
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Bill T. Jones, one of the country’s foremost choreographers, is well known for making courageous, humane postmodern dance theater works tackling—with intelligence and grace—such complicated subjects as AIDS and the war in Iraq. (Jones: “To connect the idea of a body to a real body; that, to me, is what dance is.”) He also won a Tony for his choreography for the Broadway musical Spring Awakening,and created the acclaimed Fela!, now on Broadway (and produced by Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) about the incendiary African musical artist Fela Kuti. He has been the winner of a MacArthur genius grant and a television guest of both Bill Moyers and Stephen Colbert.

He’s also the co-founder, with his late partner Arnie Zane (who died of AIDS in 1988), of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Thanks to Alverno Presents, the company is making its fifth appearance in Milwaukee on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 3 p.m. at the Pitman Theatre in a masterful, hour-long work by Jones called Serenade/The Proposition. I saw it on DVD weeks ago and I continue to be moved by it. If you can use a reminder of all the reasons art matters, I think this will provide it.

Jones and his collaborators combine movement, music, text, costume, film and design to “push buttons”—to evoke associations likely to be different for each viewer—in relation to the subject, which is us,our democracy, our nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, a proposition that must be proven and re-proven. The dance refers to some of the most wrenching events in American history, as well as some of the most inspiring, and summons a vision of our time in which, as Jones puts it, “We are living in an undeclared war coming from every direction.” Jones scoffs at the notion that art should be kept separate from politics or dance from meaning.

In 2007, he accepted a major commission from Illinois’ Ravinia Festival to create a new work on the life and/or legacy of Abraham Lincoln for the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Jones is African American, born 58 years ago in Florida, the 10th of 12 children whose family migrated north during his childhood. He says with a characteristic double edge that Lincoln was the only white man he was allowed to love unconditionally. Nonetheless, he needed to immerse himself not only in Lincoln and the Civil War, but also in all its implications and resonances. 

“How can I talk about such a strong, ambiguous figure in a way that also talks about us? Any good work of art must talk about us,” Jones says. “Was he a good man? Can we see that man anywhere in us or around us now? Am I a good man? Are we good people? The ultimate goal is the heart, and I had to start with my own.”

He’s made three performances on the subject. 100 Migrations, a one-time-only event at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., was a ritualized communal storytelling performance. He asked 100 people to address such questions as “What did Lincoln mean to you?” and “What does history mean to us?” The stories that emerged of families, ancestors and half-remembered lessons helped him ground what became the Ravinia piece, titled Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray.

Serenade/The Proposition is a stand-alone work emanating less from Lincoln’s biography than from the nation’s history of rhetoric and real bodies at war. It had its premiere at the 2008 American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., and has toured since. It features stunning original music, played and sung live, along with recorded and live texts taken from speeches by Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Oliver Wendell Holmes, mixed with recorded personal conversations Jones had with the dancers as they made the work. As costumes, the dancers took their own clothes and tore and pasted them to suggest the Civil War era. The rolling white columns and filmed images confound time and space. The company has been racially integrated from its founding in 1983. In continuously jolting ways, the brilliant, beautiful dancers manage to suggest all the idealism and all the violence of our nation’s history.


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