Today, there was a free screening of A Good Man at the Bennett Gordon Hall, a documentary about the production of something very special that was commissioned back in 2009 by Ravinia: a modern dance based on the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, to celebrate his 200th birthday. Think James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s Every Little Step, only with Bill T. Jones’s edginess and teamwork fluff mixed with a few maelstroms.
The dance was left in the hands of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and was choreographed by Bill T. Jones himself, who titled the dance, Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray (formerly A Good Man!/A Good Man?). The title of the dance is in reference to Lincoln’s “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away”, while the documentary’s title is most likely in reference to two more quotes from Lincoln: “Discourage litigation…as a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough” and “Whatever you are, be a good one.” These titles both emulate the struggle between knowing that nobody is really “good”, and hoping, even striving for something greater in all of us, as Lincoln called us to do so – to pursue the truth behind who we are as a person.
As the documentary progressed, it was clear that while major political and historical issues like slavery, citizenship, and freedom were discussed, the actual dance had little to do with the man Abraham Lincoln. Instead, it was more about the ideas (which is one letter away from ‘ideals’) he represented, ideas that are now so integrated into American history and culture that they’ve become “something you can’t remember, yet also something you can’t forget”. Like the idea that a man from such a humble background, like Lincoln, can be elevated to such a high standing, or the idea that democracy is like a ghost train, where sometimes it seems to be cruising at a nice, controlled speed, and other times, it’s just barrelling through everything while the passengers are barely hanging on.
Throughout the documentary, you can also see Jones’s efforts at trying to tie ancient history to the present, modern world. The most obvious can be seen in the style of dance used for Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray – the more traditional dance style of ballet was thrown out in favour of contemporary dance techniques and music, creating a jarring yet strangely appropriate contrast to the material. Jones also brings in the stories of the dancers into the narration, fostering a deeper connection between the dance and the performers. This production is theirs, like being part of a nation; a citizenship. This way, Jones manages to use Lincoln’s life as a way to influence and affect the younger generation, who in turn affect the older generation, bringing together people from all ages.
What I found most fascinating actually didn’t occur until after the documentary, i.e. during the Q&A session with the directors of the movie, Gordon Quinn (Kartemquin Films) and Bob Hercules (Media Process Group), and Bill Jones himself. They talked about the creative process, not just of the dance, but also the documentary and how art consists of going through the constant process of creating something from nothing, then cutting and remaking it over and over again in a sort of frustrating, rigourous fervour. I found myself thinking that this is very true for any fine art practice, too. Artists tend to be perfectionists, not for the sake of showing other people “good” art, but for their own sake. As Jones said, “The artist doesn’t have to do anything, and shouldn’t do anything. But the artist is a person – they have a gender, a class, a race, and the question is not “What should the artist do?”, but rather, “What does this person need to do?”” For the artist, perfection is almost a type of self-definition, and trust me, that is more than enough to make an artist’s life extremely difficult.
Overall, I thought that the one thing that stood out the most that despite all the bickering and the arguments and the clash of creative opinions and endeavours, Jones and his team of dancers, musicians, and technicians still managed to pull through while adhering to Jones’s artistic vision. While it may not be perfect in Jones’s eyes, there is a beauty in embracing the dance with all its imperfections, as this represents the diversity and idiosyncrasies of each human individual. This is how hope of finding the “good man” in all of us survives: when we put aside our differences, and accept each another for who we are as a human being, even though we may not always agree with one another.