Bill Jones's choreographed homage to Lincoln doesn't reach full potential

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 11:56 PM

Choreographer Bill T. Jones has never shied away from artistic risk. He made a name for himself in the modern dance world with controversial but gripping works such as "Still/Here" and "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land." In the past five years, he changed gears and cast his lot on an entirely different type of work, making Broadway hits "Spring Awakening" and "Fela!," which earned him Tony Awards for best choreography.

So it's no surprise that Jones was game for the challenge of trying to capture and honor the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. "Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray," performed Thursday by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Kennedy Center, was created two years ago to mark the fallen president's bicentennial. (A brief excerpt of this piece was seen at the same venue in December when Jones received the Kennedy Center Honors.)

It's a work that seems like it should succeed - Jones's choreographic voice has a forthright tone that is a good fit for a necessarily complex work that delves into subjects such as racism, slavery and war.

But despite this presumably strong pairing of story and storyteller, the dance doesn't fully meet expectations, as the concept isn't as original as its movement and stage design.

The dominant set piece for this evening-long work is a large ring of floor-to-ceiling panels of translucent white cloth. Created by designer Bjorn G. Amelan, it is used to create two realms. When dancers were within this fabric halo, they look like dreams or distant memories. When they were outside of it, there was a heightened sense of immediacy and authenticity.

To a sound score that included folk songs, spoken-word poetry and excerpts of Lincoln speeches, Jones depicts the lives of the president and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The choreographer then goes a step further, aiming to show how the civil-rights issues Lincoln faced are relevant to today's political and cultural conversation. And through a series of solos, he highlights Lincoln's impact on a host of individuals, including a character modeled after himself.

Each solo was perfectly tuned for the dancer who performed it. Shayla-Vie Jenkins's section, which opened the piece, flaunted her imperturbable, long-limbed grace, while a later part for Peter Chamberlin had a biting, edgy quality that none of the other dancers could have pulled off as credibly. And Paul Matteson, who played Lincoln, was given a showcase for his fluid but idiosyncratic style in a section packed with deep lunges, frequently flexed wrists, and movements that started at the crown of his head and rippled down the rest of his body.

The work undoubtedly had some poignant, provocative images, but as a whole, it doesn't reveal anything that hasn't already been said about Lincoln's imprint on our society, and it doesn't offer an especially fresh take on his life or persona. From a creative thinker like Jones, one hopes to see something more transformative and tightly focused.

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