From the beginning of his career, Bill T. Jones has pursued challenges, making dances about racism, AIDS, grief, and death, igniting fierce criticism and inspiring a generation of dancers and artists. He has reached far beyond the boundaries of dance, calling on history, literature, and contemporary social struggles to create art that is in dialogue with the larger world, art that says something about how and why we endure.
In this, his latest work, Jones reaches again into the annals of history, employing a scholarly approach to his exploration of Abraham Lincoln, the man, the icon, and the metaphor.
The result is slick, sophisticated staging that combined 10 superbly gifted dancers with an actor/narrator, film projections, and live music and vocals. The set, like the work as a whole, was monumental: A gauzy, circular scrim like a giant shower curtain opened and closed to reveal dancers moving past stark, white pillars reminiscent at times of the Lincoln Memorial. The costumes, too-modernized tailored suits and dresses in gray and white tones-made the dancers appear like higher versions of ourselves; exalted, refined beyond this plane. It’s a staging that held the audience at arm’s length, saying, “This story is bigger than you.”
From the first bang of artillery fire, we were plunged into a world not our own, but one that echoes our stories. We know the stench of war, and we know the explosions that occur when politics and racism collide. “I am with you, you men and women of a generation,” intoned the narrator, and we heard the words of Walt Whitman, but also Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama: great men with great visions, men who remember the past as they look to the future.
Jones sometimes refers to his dancers as “sublime material,” and says that they are sharp, elegant, sleek, and fluid. When they move, every joint and muscle is articulated, as if they are made of more distinct parts than the rest of us, and yet they seem not superhuman, but completely human. When Shayla-Vie Jenkins moves to an incantation of body parts-scapula, elbow socket, arm sinews-her dance is a joyous thanksgiving. And when the circumstances of Lincoln’s life and death are read aloud, Paul Matteson rises and falls like an angel, his every intention crystalline.