Saturday, November 05, 2011

DOC NYC ’11: Bill T. Jones—A Good Man

No political leader endured more viscous defamations from their rivals and the media than President Abraham Lincoln, not even Sarah Palin. Nevertheless, the sixteenth president transcended those slings and arrows, bringing America much closer to the promise of its founding ideals. Somehow though, dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones remained skeptical, initially envisioning his Lincoln bicentennial commission as a work of historical revisionism. The concurrent evolution of Jones’ controversial production and his judgment on Lincoln are documented in Bob Hercules & Gordon Quinn’s Bill T. Jones: A Good Man (trailer here), which screens today at DOC NYC 2011, about a week ahead of its broadcast premiere on PBS’s American Masters.

Without question, Jones is one of the leading choreographer’s of modern dance. A Tony award winner for Fela!, he has collaborated with iconic artists like Jessye Norman and Max Roach. Compulsively well read in history, philosophy, and sociology, Jones seems cynical in an instinctively contrarian way. In fact, in its early stages he conceives Fondly We Do Hope . . . Fervently We Do Pray as a vehicle for airing a compendium of Lincoln’s less enlightened statements on race. One wonders why on Earth he would agree to spend such a considerable amount of time with a subject he was so ambivalent about.

Indeed, Jones gradually warms to Lincoln, embracing the unifying president, despite his flaws, following Lincoln’s own example. However, the choreographer’s leadership style will still most likely keep viewers at arm’s length. It is one thing to be demanding, but Jones eventually admits to the company his demeanor has not always been properly respectful.

Despite or perhaps because of Jones’ difficulty coming to grips with Lincoln, his choreography looks legitimately inspired. His dancers also have an impressive physicality, well suited to the nature of the production. It is fascinating to watch Fondly come together, but frankly it is not always pleasant observing Jones at work. (Those interested in a behind the scenes view of a major dance company would probably be better advised to check out Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse).

It is an appealing novelty to watch someone shed a layer of cynicism, particularly an artist of Jones’ caliber. Yet, Pres. Lincoln never really gets his due in Good Man (not that he should worry about history’s verdict), beyond a grudging admission from Jones that maybe there really are great men who make an affirmative difference in history and perhaps Lincoln was one of them. Dance connoisseurs will still find plenty to appreciate in Good Man, but they should certainly be able to wait until its broadcast debut this coming Friday (11/11). Nonetheless, committed Jones fans can still catch it this afternoon (11/5) as part of this year’s DOC NYC if they scramble down to the IFC Center.