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Craven: Fondly Do We Hope

04/02/10 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Filmmaker and commentator Jay Craven recently saw an unusual dance performance choreographed by MacArthur fellow Bill T. Jones and inspired by the turbulent presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

(CRAVEN) After the world premiere of his new dance performance, world acclaimed American choreographer Bill T. Jones told an interviewer, quote - "my aesthetic is a social vision."  And so it is - in this epic work, "Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray," that stimulated for me dozens of fresh thoughts about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, it's rare - a formidable challenge and a tricky balancing act - for any choreographer to weave so many spoken ideas and ruminations into a dance performance, as Jones does here.  We tend to associate dance with abstract expressions that seep into our unconscious imagination, almost like a dream.  

Bill T. Jones' superb dancers achieve poetry.  But his meditation on Lincoln unfolds on several planes - a brief but literal telling of the Lincoln narrative; a graceful dance rendering America's unsettled past; and an open-ended representation of a half-dozen Americans born at different junctures in our history - where the living present is never free of its past.

Words wash over us, as audience members are prompted to delve into multi-layered thoughts about slavery and freedom, war and peace, patriotism and faith, race and gender, unity and division.  

Jones uses several motifs to shape words and amplify meaning.  Early, on stage, an African-American dancer gracefully moves as a narrator recites body parts that suggest her humanity, strength, and vulnerability.  "Head, neck, ears," he says, "eyes, iris of the eye, eyebrow, the waking and sleeping of the lids."  

Later, a male dancer representing Lincoln moves to these same words, adding new insight and perspective.  Still later, the narrator re-appears, dressed in period formal wear, rattling off the same names of body parts, this time as an auctioneer.  What was previously only suggested - about the slave as property and Lincoln as both great man and victim - these words now combine in a powerful cadence that stirs our consciousness - about the reality of people being valued for their physical attributes and sold on the auction block.

"Fondly Do We Hope - Fervently Do We Pray" will be performed at Dartmouth's Hopkins Center April 6th through the 8th.  Jones' ambitious dance suggests the sweep of history and continuing legacy of America's most beleaguered president - who came to office facing the inevitability of rupture and our nation's bloodiest war.

Commissioned by the Lincoln bi-centennial, Bill T. Jones finds parallels between then and now.  And he clearly relishes this chance to work with big ideas suggested by Lincoln's second Inaugural address:

"Fondly do we hope... fervently do we pray," Lincoln said, "that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away... with malice toward none, with charity for all... let us strive on to... bind up the nations' wounds."
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