Kartemquin Korner is a weekly-ish segment spotlighting a particular selection from Kartemquin Films, the finest documentary production company this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This week’s installment:

A Good Man (2011)

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Bill T Freaking Jones!!! As he is known to many.

 

This documentary; which was directed by Kartemquin cofounder Gordon Quinn  and veteran television director Bob Hercules, produced by Joanna Rudnick and Rachel Pikelny, and featuring Keith Walker as Director of Photography; originally appeared on PBS as part of the American Masters series.

It chronicles modern dance pioneer, choreographer, director, and cultural icon/national treasure Bill T Jones as he and his company create and perform an original work about Abraham Lincoln for the recent Bicentennial celebration of his birth. The piece was commissioned by and performed at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.

Jones is most known as the co-creator and public face of the Broadway sensation FELA!, based on the life and music of AfroPop sensation and political activist Fela Kuti, but his artistic impact has been felt ever since he burst upon the modern dance scene in the 1970’s with his partner/collaborator Arnie Zane. The pair formed the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982 and redefined modern dance with their intense, socio-politically charged fusions of dance, music, theater, and performance art. After Zane’s passing in 1988, Jones continued the ensemble he had founded with his lifelong love and muse, and the company’s work has continued to define the cutting edge.

A Good Man follows Jones and his cohorts through the creative process; casting ensemble members for the production, brainstorming about the form the piece will take, adjusting and improvising as the piece begins to take shape— all the way through the furious final push to bring everything together into a finished work. Creating such a large and ambitious multi-media piece from scratch is the ultimate high wire act, made even more treacherous by the realities of the dance world. As Jones wryly laments, “in commercial theater, this would be the first preview, but in the world of dance, this is our World Premiere.”

The footage of this frenetic and often angst-laden struggle to “fashion something from nothing” provides an incredible window into the creative process, as Jones and his team of brilliant and committed collaborators from several disciplines (composer/musicians, light, sound and set designers) work in tandem with the dancers in constructing the piece.

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Photo from the production of Fondly We Hope…Fervently We Pray, which premiered at Ravinia Festival.

Distinct from all other types of performer, dancers have a certain unique intensity about them. A mixture of conservatory trained artist and Olympic level athlete, they seek and achieve transcendence on multiple levels, a process which has a powerful effect on one’s psyche. The peculiar emotional zeitgeist engendered by being an artist whose medium is their own body can make them on occasion, shall we say  “a bit tightly wound.” Jones and his dancers are no exception to this phenomenon, and some of the exchanges captured might seem adversarial to those not familiar with artistic/performance subcultures, but are all in a day’s work for those involved in the arduous process of raw creation.

As are the often awkward interactions between Jones and his musicians as they try to bridge the gap between two entirely different artistic languages, music and dance. Composer/Bandleader Christopher Antonio William Lancaster remarks “the miscommunications that happen between me and Bill and the rest of the musicians are an integral part of the process. That’s just how we do it.”

That may be Jones greatest challenge— translating movement into the language of not just music but lighting and design. He is often forced to resort to what seems like a mixture of non sequiturs and Zen koans. There is an especially amusing scene where Jones and Lancaster are watching the dancers work. Jones suddenly turns to Lancaster and matter-of-factly intones: “He- They.  He- They.  He- They.  US    He-They-Us   He–They–Us” and just as quickly turns away as Lancaster smiles enigmatically.

Jones is an amalgam of exacting theater director and hard ass football coach, pushing everyone in the production to give every fiber of their being to the effort. His manner can get brusque, but he tries to temper to the vinegar with a bit of sugar, and is quite candid with the others about his own fears and insecurities as he wrestles with the material.

The dance piece itself, Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, is incredibly wide ranging; incorporating Lincoln, Slavery, the Civil War, Abe’s relationship with Mary, Jones’ feelings about Lincoln, and even the personal biographies of Jones and the dancers themselves. New elements are folded into the show even as the premiere approaches and new dialogue put into the script the very morning of it.

A Good Man intersperses footage of the rehearsals and creative meetings with that of the actual performances and sprinkles in a few hilarious snippets of post show commentary from some Bougie North Shore culture vultures kvetching about how they don’t like political/social commentary in their art and especially their dance. There is also a fine overview of Jones’ career embedded within the narrative.

A must see for fans of dance, art, music, culture, and the creative process. Even hardcore historian fans of Lincoln may be intrigued by it. And hardcore Kartemquinites (Kartemquians?) like myself will adore it!

 

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Much of Jones’ narrative struggle in creating Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray revolved around his own feelings about Abraham Lincoln.