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History Repeating

Date: Nov 05, 2009


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Bill T. Jones is a busy man these days. On November 10, his dance company will perform Serenade/The Proposition, part of a trilogy about Abraham Lincoln, at the Joyce Theatre. On November 23, Fela!, a musical about the legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti that Jones directed and choreographed, opens on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre

These two works have much in common, starting with their origins. Both were commissions, and Jones was hesitant about tackling someone else’s ideas. He also had initial reservations about pieces on historical figures, but as he read more about these two men, he was drawn to them. “In the case of Fela, he was a radical artist [and an] uncompromising, difficult person. I call him a sacred monster—no society should be without one,” Jones says. “Abraham Lincoln was a visionary leader, a man who educated himself on every possible level, and to this day, he stands for some of the highest values in our democratic system.

Though Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin in Kentucky, and Fela Kuti, raised in upper-class Nigerian society, came from radically different backgrounds, the two men were more similar than one might think. Both were political figures—Lincoln was president, and Kuti aspired to be president—with their share of opposition. “They were both singular and brave. And they both had something to tell us about freedom and maybe even creativity—how one communicates, how one finds a potent language that can move people,” Jones says.

An outspoken activist who frequently protested Nigeria’s military and government, Kuti is remembered as much for his politics as for his musical contributions. However, Jones says people often forget that Kuti was first and foremost an artist.

An artist himself, it may seem Jones could relate more easily to Kuti, but he says that his view of the man is more troubled than his view of Lincoln. “Lincoln I could more easily say I love than Fela. I respect the man, but he scares me to death,” Jones says, though he also believes that Kuti can be misunderstood. “For all of his hedonism, I think he certainly was trying to rethink what an African man and what a man was,” he says. “I think some of his ideas were decidedly reactionary, but they were ideas that were trying to correct some great distortions that come with colonialism. He’s not quite the crazy that people make him out to be.”

As for representing these two men on the stage, dance is of course Jones’s primary medium—The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is now in its 25th year—but he enjoys exploring other forms of storytelling, and these two works are prime examples of that. As a musical, Fela! uses narrative and Afrobeat music to tell its story. Serenade/The Proposition incorporates video projections by Janet Wong and texts of Lincoln’s speeches.

This is not the first outing for either piece—Fela! had an off-Broadway run last year at 37 Arts and Serenade/The Proposition premiered at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina—but both productions have evolved. Describing Fela!, which marks his Broadway directing debut, Jones says, “It’s taking everything I have. I’m enjoying it to a point, and I’m suffering as well.”
He divides his time between the productions, but he admits that he couldn’t do it without his team of associate choreographers and directors, who make the balancing act that much easier.

“This whole thing has been about discovery. There are surprises and disappointments and opportunities that open up almost daily,” Jones says. He is open to exploring new challenges for himself in stage work and other mediums, but he also is curious how Fela! will be received. If history is any indication, he shouldn’t worry. He was embraced by the Broadway community when he choreographed Spring Awakening, which earned him a Tony award. Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce, commissioner of Serenade/The Proposition, also offers a vote of confidence. “Anything that Bill T. Jones creates is very exciting. His dancers are always amazing and excellent,” she says.

Though he has other projects on the horizon, it’s hard for Jones to look too far ahead. “I am totally involved in this one right now,” he says. And first things first: After Fela! opens, Jones is planning a month-long vacation.

Linda Buchwald has written for The Sondheim Review, PopMatters, International Musician, and Making Music Magazine. She blogs for Critic-O-Meter and her own blog, Pataphysical Science.