In the studio with Bill T. Jones and his set for 'Fondly Do We Hope ... Fervently Do We Pray'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 11:01 AM

The first thing you see in Bill T. Jones's dance-theater work, "Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray" is a white cylinder glowing in a black void. Formed by sheer drapery suspended above the stage, it is lit from the inside, like a paper lantern. Then comes the distant whistle of a train, and the shadow of a tall man in a top hat sweeps across the drapes as if they were a screen, a white wall. Translucence becomes solid, bleached like the marble of monuments. Jones's piece, which the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will perform Feb. 24 and 25 at the Kennedy Center, is about the poetry of Abraham Lincoln, his enduring spirit and shifting meaning. But it contains whispers of Washington: The capital's architecture of praise, expressed in open space and white rock, echoes through an emotional vision of the slain president.

Jones spoke recently about this surreal and evocative set design, which he devised with his company's creative director, Bjorn Amelan.

"I knew [the piece] was going to be about a difficult thing, orations, but it would also be about ideas, about the passage of time, about the abyss - being on the verge of a war. How do you take ideas like this and give the dancers something to do? I was exploring different ways to move around the stage as a group, at different speeds. Bjorn said, 'Why not make the floor in the shape of your choreography - why not make it an oval?' It was scary, because we always work with squares, but it was good to break out of the square.

"We're also going back and forth from the 19th century to the 20th, and the only source of 19th-century images would be video. I didn't want a cyclorama scrim across the back - everybody has those. We could've also dropped a scrim in the front, which you've seen in Merce Cunningham's 'Biped,' for example. How could we make it more tangible of a place where the choreographic idea, this notion of a maelstrom, and the architectural space - the floor - meet? So that white floor grows up to be a cylinder. Then we were looking for ways we could use it and get rid of it. Why not make it a series of curtains, to be a beautiful, glowing volume, and then move it away to have a more conventional presentation to the audience. That's how we came up with these curtains, four panels that could be half-opened, completely closed or completely open. And the opening and closing acquires meaning, becomes a gesture. That's when I find it exciting.

"Another thing that's very important throughout the whole piece: The dancer who portrays Lincoln is all dressed in white. We don't usually see Lincoln that way. He's like those 19th- century marble monuments. White marble, white space: This is a piece that is taking inspiration from Washington, D.C. It is very self-consciously about an allegory of greatness and national pride. Yet within it we have modern dancers-they are godly, and they are all different shapes and sizes. We exist in this world of monumentality, which is literally carved in stone - yet we are fluid. These contradictions are all in it."

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