Choreographer-director Bill T. Jones is portrayed on "American Masters."

Bill T. Jones at Chicago's Ravinia Festival in 2009, where his tribute to Lincoln, "Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray," was presented.
Bill T. Jones at Chicago's Ravinia Festival in 2009, where his tribute to Lincoln, "Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray," was presented. (Courtesy of Russell Jenkins/Ravinia Festival)

The sweat and strain of making art

Posted: November 08, 2011

The challenge that choreographer-director Bill T. Jones faced when he tried to contain the vastness of Abraham Lincoln's mythology in a single evening-length work a couple of years ago isn't entirely dissimilar from what director Gordon Quinn and Bob Hercules must have faced making the new American Masters documentary Bill T. Jones: A Good Man, premiering at 9 p.m. Friday on WHYY TV12.

Jones is larger than life and then some. The son of Florida potato pickers who was raised in the upstate New York town of Wayland, Jones has always worn his heart, soul, politics and art on his sleeve. He has often collaborated with other artists, notably his late partner and the co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, author Toni Morrison, artist Keith Haring, soprano Jessye Norman and his sister, Bay Area singer/writer/director Rhodessa Jones. His many awards include a MacArthur genius grant, two Tony awards and a 2010 Kennedy Center Honor.

Yet, what becomes clear as Quinn and Hercules follow Jones through the creation of Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray, a 2009 work for Chicago's Ravinia Festival to mark the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, is that while Jones embraces the collaborative aspect of making art, his vision is not only singular but often dominant.

The film crackles with scene after scene of Jones challenging and driving his dancers, composers and technicians. Just before the premiere of Fondly, he decides he wants the piece to end with an explosive rumble of the mythological Lincoln "ghost train," which was reportedly seen in the years following the 16th president's assassination. At the same time, though, he wants a blast of guitar music. His sound guy knows he can't have both, but that doesn't stop Jones from pushing.

At another point, Jones storms out of a rehearsal after blowing up at his company, only to return the next day to apologize - sort of: You don't get the idea this is a guy who's done a lot of apologizing in his life. And that's just one of the reasons his art is so dynamic and memorable.

What's missing in the film, to some extent, is the biography, beyond some early photos of his family and some vintage footage of Jones and Zane dancing together. As he's being driven to a press interview for the Lincoln piece, Jones complains in advance that he'll be asked the usual biographical questions - how did you get into dance, how did you feel when Arnie died?

Although the film isn't meant to be biographical, the past is not only prologue to the present, but can offer useful insight about it. Even from a purely professional point of view, there is so much in Jones' full body of work that could add to the filmmakers' examination of the process of creating the Lincoln work and Jones' belief that art should be beautiful, should stir the emotions and move the heart, but it can also provoke the brain to consider social and political issues as well.

For example, A Good Man contains only a clip from his famous 1994 piece about terminal illness, Still/Here. There's no reference to the debate that erupted in the dance world when then-New Yorker critic Arlene Croce wrote that she would not see Still/Here because she considered it "victim art." Perhaps the filmmakers didn't feel the need to resurrect the whole thing because the ensuing debate seems like ancient history. Yet there is, in fact, evidence in the film that the issue still exists, all these years later: Early in A Good Man, a female patron states that she has come to Ravinia to see art, not to be preached to.

Wishing that the filmmakers had broadened their vision does not obviate what A Good Man does very well, which is to take us inside the creative process in a real, sweat-and-tears way. Art isn't easy, as Sondheim wrote, but when you are as driven as Bill T. Jones is, the hard work often pays off.

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