Posted by: trailerpilot | 07:20::2010

Review: Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray

(Apologies in advance for my sprawling, disorganized assessment of this piece. On the other hand, if you haven’t or can’t see it, reading this review might give a sense of the experience.)

Time Out New York Dance editor Gia Kourlas, writing in the New York Times, wondered whether Tony award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones is or should be considering a move from dance to theater. Her query was prompted by Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, which received its world premiere last fall at Ravinia and has been reborn, “tightened significantly,” for New York’s Lincoln Center Festival. (In 2007, Ravinia commissioned the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company to create an original work for the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and were returned a trilogy over three years. Fondly Do We Hope is the final installment.)

I’ll second Kourlas’s query, and without a memory-jogging sift through my drawer of ticket stubs, add that I’ve never before seen a dance so thoroughly drenched with language. The spoken and sung lyrics of its score are pulled from the Bible, 19th century and contemporary sources; singers and some dancers speak text from same and a script by Jones and Janet Wong. Moments without some sort of voiceover are rare. Buttressing the verbiage is a three-page program note by Suzanne Carbonneau, relevant source material reprinted in full, words projected on the set, and a statement by Jones himself.

Jones, of course, can do whatever he wants. In contemporary performance—hell, in contemporary culture—genre distinctions are vague at best. But upon exiting the Rose Theater, feeling like I’d just read a novella, I wondered what dance had to do with any of it. The physical language created by Jones and his collaborators is beautifully executed and compelling, but comes nowhere near the way it defined character in, say, his 2006 work Chapel/Chapter—knowing Jones is capable of great dance theater makes Fondly Do We Hope that much more frustrating.

(Arranging movement to match the starts, stops and cadences of the spoken word is, as choreographic manipulations go, fairly simple. An accomplished dancer can do it on the spot. What’s more important, and difficult to pull off, is dialogue between the heard and visual vocabularies that avoids the extremes of literalness and opacity. In Fondly Do We Hope, long stretches of dance are repeated “verbatim” to unrelated paragraphs. Now, Carbonneau states, “The movement is not intended to depict psychological situations nor to illustrate [the text]…Jones harvests this thematic inventory for boundless variations,” but instead of alchemizing into something greater than the sum of its parts, Fondly Do We Hope becomes two realms in parallel. There are ways this could be meta-commentary on the race divisions and two Americas the piece seeks to dissect, but that’s not the case here.)

In other words, without its text and lyrics, Fondly Do We Hope would be a 90-minute contemporary dance that gives an abstracted sense of the sociological survey Jones has spun out of the story behind and impact of the Lincoln Administration. Without its dance action…the work would be an ambitious and inventive one-act musical about the story behind and impact of the Lincoln Administration.

For the record, Fondly Do We Hope is a noble effort, and at least optimistic about the capacity of its audience to comprehend it. But its planes don’t cooperate. It simply doesn’t function as dance theater.

Bjorn G. Amelan, a longtime BTJ/AZDC collaborator, has designed yet another sleek and versatile set for the company, but this one hides more than frames. The majority of the stage space is given to a sheer white curtain in four sections hung from an oval ceiling track. You could call it a giant lampshade or shower curtain, sure, but as the work progresses it becomes a symbol of literal and figurative skins—all that is surface and superficial, what we see when we don’t look too hard. There’s true poetry when the dancers press against it from the inside. It also reflects the video projections, mostly snatches in cursive of what we hear, wipes of erasure and montage. It’s also a zoetrope.

Six white Doric columns on casters recall, as Carbonneau confirms, “the White House, grand antebellum plantations, and the birthplace of democracy in ancient Greece.” There’s true poetry when one topples over like a tree felled for a log cabin. Downstage left, a small oval platform juts out into the first few rows, an ambassador from the dance to its witness. The three composer/musicians (Jerome Begin, Christopher Antonio William Lancaster, George Lewis, Jr.) and Clarissa Sinceno occupy a small orchestra pit. Liz Prince’s costumes, like the projections, are in greyscale, their linings occasionally flashing acid greens and crimson. Again, a concise contrast of superficial simplicity with inner complexity, though a common trick, à la the “Rum and Coca-Cola” girl in Taylor’s Company B.

Excerpts from Walt Whitman’s “Poem of the Body,” its anatomical inventory pointing one way toward investigation and the other toward auction, serve as the introduction and conclusion to Fondly Do We Hope. During Wong’s projections, Kara Walker’s charged silhouette art is both close at hand and at arm’s length. There are terse biographies of Lincoln, Jones, unnamed characters of past, present and future, and Mary Todd (whose legacy, it’s suggested, is something about which we should argue, without taking sides or elaborating). I-Ling Liu and Paul Matteson dance diamond-like solos. Actor Jamyl Dobson is our narrator. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are sketched woven into present concerns. There’s procession, mourning, reflection, objection, subjection, unraveling and time traveling.

Jones and company have much to say about Lincoln, race, our nation’s history, present and future. So why the obfuscation? Art can be abstract and still punch the gut.

All the elements, especially the plainchant-to-metal score, “work” if considered out of context. Fondly Do We Hope aims for greatness with strong components. One has the sense of being in an extraordinarily insightful space. It’s hard to say for sure, though—none of the lights are on.

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