Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray at the Irvine Barclay Theatre

Behind a sheer white curtain, vignettes develop in the muted tones of old photographs as narrator Jamyl Dobson tells the story much as we’ve heard it before. Abraham Lincoln is born, works hard, falls in love with Mary Todd, has four boys…. We glimpse a family in dynamic action as Abe and Mary and their sons, connected by clasped hands and hooked arms, rock and slide and swing each other up overhead and safely back to the earth. He confronts slavery, the issue of the day…. Paul Matteson, as Lincoln, flops and flails on the floor, turning in the circles of an injured insect. He becomes President…. The white-suited Matteson bounds, then stalks stiffly and gestures emphatically, his legs unfurling and pressing like long, flapping wings. He brings a country to war to save itself… is assassinated.

Dancers whip the curtain away and we see him in the flesh, face flushed, at once humanized and memorialized against a backdrop of columns that suggest the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and democracy itself. Bill T. Jones’ Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray moves through the legends, impressions and famous words of Abraham Lincoln to discover a man and his enduring relevance and challenge to America.

Fondly Do We Hope pursues this admirably ambitious vision with a deluge of projected and spoken text, riveting performance of an original musical score, bits of video, and glorious dancing. It’s a rare thrill to see dance on a grand scale and in the company of such brilliant collaborators as vocalists George Lewis Jr. and Clarissa Sinceno, but the work often seems either overwhelmed by its vast scope or frustratingly busy and limited by layers of overbearing text. Where Jones trusts bodies to speak with potent subtlety and allows us to dwell thoughtfully in complexity, however, he creates an intimate and nuanced portrait that moves and calls us to stewardship of the liberty our country claims.

A shouted and danced debate blends words Lincoln and Stephen Douglas exchanged about slavery in 1858 with cries of the current American culture wars over gay marriage, military involvement in the Middle East, immigration policy and interrogation by torture. But the political references seem like sound bites and the movement mere accompaniment until the chaos climaxes in focused unison and the entire company unites in gestural recitation of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” In the cadence of the spoken words, elbows stab out from shoulders, backs arch, heads look up, and powerful singleness of purpose replaces sensory overload. “All men are created equal….” Knees bend, chests cave, bodies drop to the floor. In the raw physicality we see pain caused by failure to realize these words and the consuming effort required to act on them.

Moving, spoken portraits of contemporary Americans – apparently both real and fictitious – poke at these political sore spots again and again. “She was born in 1939.” In dull gray dress and thick black stockings, Jennifer Nugent labors with the deliberate, efficient and direct strokes of one who knows hard work – her body all sinew, starkly defined in white light and shadow. Dobson tells us about her tough childhood, and the dancing becomes supplement rather than primary source. “She knows slavery was wrong, but she wishes things could be clear like they used to be.” This woman, like the earnest soldier we meet earlier who “doesn’t care much about history,” remains flat and distant because the calculation is evident; I know which statements are intended to draw out my opposing views and which are supposed to pull me toward her in empathy, so unfortunately I bristle at the assumptions and push away from the artifice.

In contrast, we get to know Mary Todd Lincoln – danced with intriguing dimension by Asli Bulbul – throughout the evening, and mostly through her body. Flashes of red underskirt amidst quick flicks and sudden shifts suggest Mary’s mercurial nature, but when followed by tender turns in a waltz with Matteson and a stunned walk in the black of mourning, we see a fully formed person and an utterly devoted wife.

The work’s sweeping scale shrinks to a single point of focus as Matteson stands on stage alone. In the stillness we see that he bears something of Lincoln’s humble dignity in his chest and shoulders. With gentle folds of the torso he considers and carries out a careful leap into space, spongy legs and quiet cat feet absorbing the decided step. Through the silence we hear only occasional squeaks of directional shifts and lovely pats of feet against floor. When his arms rise confidently to a V, then lag, collapse, and rest a while, I’m reminded of things I’ve read about Lincoln’s retreats into prayer when overcome by the weight of a country and its war. These few moments of bare physical presence make me feel for and care about this weary, solitary man as I never have.

Room to consider, to drink in image or sound or movement, is hard to find in Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray, but when the many elements fall into step with one another or fall away entirely, we wander to revelatory places. Unfortunately, from such exhilarating heights the piece drags out to a heavy-handed conclusion: “Lincoln is a story we tell ourselves. We still dedicate, we still consecrate ourselves to his unfinished work….” The attempt to summarize the past 90 minutes diminishes where we’ve been together, and I’m ready for some time with my own thoughts.

Other responses to this work:

New York Times

LA Times


  1. Another thought-provoking review! I'm interested in your criticism regarding the over-use of text in this work. The LA Times review alludes to this aspect with a more positive twist - that this is intentionally a theater work with dance playing only one supporting role. Do you think that your perspective as a dancer makes you want more dance and less text? Do you think your expectations of Bill T. Jones, who is a dance choreographer and not a playwright, caused you to be disappointed when you didn't see a dance performance punctuated with some text?

    I suspect that you have thought of this and that your criticism is valid in any case. Your excellent descriptions of Mary Todd's and Lincoln's movement sans overbearing text point out that in this piece, movement conveys the meaning and complexity better than the overbearing text. Perhaps this is because Mr. Jones is better at dance choreography than theater? Or is it that text giving absolute truth (through third person omnicient proclamations at the end of the piece or through calculated character descriptions intended to result in a single conclusion) is poor form no matter if it's dance or theater? Imagine a conventional theater piece without music or dance but with similar text overlaying it. The negative effect would be similar.

    I've seen similar defects in other work. This next point may be going too far, but could it be that it results from the provincial political understandings of many artists? One where only one viewpoint is truly correct, but one that pays patronizing lipservice to a strawman of those with differing viewpoints?

    This comment is too negative. I also want to applaud Mr. Jones for an ambitious work about something!

    Also thank you for writing, Ms. Reed!

  2. I talked to a number of people over the past week who saw the production. Whatever their opinion of the production, they all had one thing in common. They wanted to talk about it. People stood outside the theatre even after the staff went home to share their views. There have been a lot of lively discussion this week -- and I think that is really great!