When the name Abraham Lincoln is mentioned, several things immediately come to mind. We think of the tall, black stovepipe hat adding another seven inches to his already elevated frame. We think “Honest Abe,” the nickname Lincoln earned as a result of his sincere and scrupulous nature. We think of the guy with the scraggly beard, the eloquent rhetorician, the Great Emancipator, the courageous man who led us through the Civil War — perhaps the most pivotal event in United States history.

“Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray”

Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Power Center
Tickets from $18

Bill T. Jones tells us to stop thinking and start imagining.

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will be presenting its acclaimed work, “Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray,” during the University of Michigan’s 24th Annual MLK Symposium tomorrow. Directed by acclaimed choreographer and 2007 Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones, the engaging dance theater performance centers on our 16th president.

“Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray” transports us to a moment in time when there was much unrest and uncertainty in the United States. Through the use of dance, text, recitations, projections and music ranging from folk to gospel, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company aims to create a multimedia performance that captures the turmoil and emotion of Lincoln’s era.

In particular, dance is utilized frequently and effectively throughout the piece, transforming the performance into much more than a typical musical theater routine.

Professor Robin Wilson, an Associate Professor of Dance in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, explained why dance may be especially effective in this performance, while giving a dance primer to students who are not familiar with the art form.

“I try to use poetry as a reference or analogy for people trying to understand modern dance. When you hear poetry, reading it doesn’t really do it. You have to hear it. And it’s not linear. It triggers images … for an overall feel that affects you,” Wilson said. “And I think modern dance choreography, and dance choreography in general, tends to do that. It’s usually not a narrative as in a play or musical theater, where you would have a dance number that kind of carries the story along just like a song would.

“It really is this idea of putting the moving body in relation to other bodies and maybe film to evoke an image and provoke thought,” he added.

Wilson also applauds Bill T. Jones for taking a distinctive approach to choreographing the dance numbers in “Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray.”

“(Jones) has a process where he collaborates heavily with his dancers,” Wilson said. “Rather than saying ‘Okay, these are the steps; I’ve made them up before; I want you to learn the steps, and then I want you to execute the steps the way I want it; and here’s the music; and here’s the costumes,’ it’s much more collaborative, where he walks in and he asks questions. And then out of those answers, movement questions are presented. And when those movement questions are posed, the dancers then create movement answers. Out of those movement answers, he then, with that material, creates a piece.”

Starting with the title, Jones aims to portray Lincoln in a manner that extends beyond the historical figure, and focuses instead on the man behind the history.

“Lincoln is a story we tell each other. A generation or two ago, schoolchildren would have learned the Gettysburg Address, the second inaugural of which the ‘Fondly’ reference comes,” Jones explains in a video on his dance company’s website.

“I was gently mocking what was true about Lincoln being a series of lines, a series of speeches, a series of biographical points. I was using ‘Fondly’ in a warm but somewhat ironic way to talk about Lincoln being reduced to a few simple tropes,” Jones says in the video.

The title may hold ulterior meanings as well. University Musical Society Student Advisory Committee member Sayan Bhattachary offers a different take on the title.

“It says ‘Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray.’ Those three dots — what are those three dots? It doesn’t say ‘Fondly Do We Hope, Fervently Do We Pray.’ Could have, but it doesn’t,” said Bhattacharyya. “What do those three dots suggest? Something that is undecided, that is maybe even a little hesitant. Someone is saying ‘Fondly We Hope,’ and maybe he’s not quite sure that hope will be realized.

“That word ‘hope’ is immensely suggestive. There is a moment of hesitation, pause, uncertainty, and above all, doubt within that hope that has been generated fondly. Fondly here doesn’t mean the English word ‘fond,’ like ‘I am fond of that person.’ Fondly here is an Old English word that means ‘naively,’ ‘innocently,’ ” said Bhattacharyya.

Wilson hopes the audience will come away with not only an appreciation of dance but also a better understanding of one of the greatest men to ever claim the presidency.

“Here is this man who symbolized a lot of hope for people (and) was controversial,” Wilson said. “What lessons can we learn from this very, very thoughtful man who was thrust into history? What were the questions he asked and how would we respond to those same questions? How do our answers shape the way we try to make our world a better one and be better citizens?”

In a similar vein, the Company’s Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong encourages students to come to the performance to not only learn about Lincoln but also about themselves. And she emphasized that any hesitant students put off by the “dance theater” label will find the show more accessible than they may expect.

“I think it’s a piece that has many levels to it. It’s also a piece that is very accessible. For example, if you watch or look at an abstract painting, you go ‘huh?’ ” Wong said. “But this is a piece that has text, that has characters, that has music. … You can even hum the music by the time you leave the theater, and it has someone that you may have studied in school. And it has characters that you may relate to, not just historical figures.”

“We tried to juxtapose Abraham Lincoln with other stories. So there are other characters that appear with their biographies right next to Lincoln’s biography,” she added.

Jones mentions in another video that he created one character specifically for the show — a conservative woman of Southern heritage who was born in 1939.

“In juxtaposing such information, maybe we find we can relate to one of (the characters),” Wong said. “Maybe in hearing one story, we can see ourselves in them. Hopefully, we do. Hopefully, it’s not just about the dance company or the musicians, but everybody in the house can relate to this story in the present, in the past, and (can) maybe think about the future and what choices we make in the future. What choices we make now affect our future.”

If Abraham Lincoln is any indication, it only takes one man’s choices to change the course of history. As we leave behind what we think and focus our eyes on what we see on stage, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will bring the story of Lincoln to life in a way that no history book can.

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