Dance legend Bill T. Jones starts off 2010 by looking back to the Age of Lincoln
Serenade/The Proposition, at Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Jan. 8â€“9 at 8 p.m. $19â€“$127. TITAS.org.
With some 30 years in the dance business, it would be easy to think Bill T. Jones has done it all. He has performed both solo and as a duet with late partner Arnie Zane, founded his own company, won a Tony and just opened a musical on Broadway to rave reviews.
But it took a man born two centuries ago to put everything in perspective for him.
For the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Jones was commissioned to create a commemorative work. He wrestled with the objective of how to portray the president, and the result — a two-part show concentrating on different aspects of Lincoln’s life — has become a complex multimedia piece of performance art. And one that was worth getting worked up again for.
"It’s very hard to get excited about new ideas or to find that what feels new," Jones says. "When I accepted the commission, I had to figure out the handle of this man. Having a historical figure placed in my hands, was a big responsibility but exhilarating."
For Jones, it was a matter of delving into Lincoln’s personality, history and slavery, which he wasn’t sure how to wrangle. It turned him into an amateur history buff and he brings one half of the opus to Dallas. Serenade/The Proposition is sort of an abstract approach to Lincoln’s legacy, described on his Web site as "a rumination on the nature of history." Speeches and text are interpreted to sort of accessorize historical perspective.
If it sounds a bit out there, consider it the product that emerges from genius. (Literally — Jones was the recipient of a 1994 McArthur Foundation "genius grant.") Here, his talents have taken the history class to a new level that provokes as well as teaches.
"My question is ‘what is history?’" he explains. "It could be a place, a woman, an image. I’m turning around the concept. To engage Lincoln is to engage a political position, something that’s maybe beyond the dance. It is the context the dance will be viewed."
Despite his artistic approach to the history, the excitement caused by doing the show has given him a joy akin to that of a proud parent.
"Something drew me closer to my company with this work. Some of these dancers could be my children. I think they see me more as a human being. The felt like I could give them something to understand and the evidence is strong on stage. I’m proud about all those things," he says.
During Jones’ research, C. A. Tripp has just published his book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, which speculated that the 16th president was gay or at least had "tendencies." Did that weigh in at all in Jones’ research?
"Ha! I know exactly what you are talking about!" he exclaims. "I’ve learned there are debunkers who want to reveal him to be just like us. His sexuality is a part of that. It was reported he did sleep with a man for many years but it was a different time. But that didn’t change my understanding or depiction of him."
At the end of the day, however, Jones just wants his work to mean something. It’s almost a hunger that his art is a participant in the world of ideas. He applies a significance to doing this interview on New Year’s Day.
"I like abstraction, metaphor, beauty, sensuality," he says. "Art is all of those things. That’s what it is for me now. I’m feeling this in the brilliant light of the new year." •
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 8, 2010.