Judicial Review #2: Serenade/The Proposition at Jacob’s Pillow
What is a Judicial Review? It is a fresh approach to creating a conversational, critical space about the arts. The aim is to combine editorial integrity with the community—making power of interactivity. This is our second session.
Hear Ye! Hear Ye!
For dance critic Debra Cash, Serenade/The Proposition, the first of Bill T. Jones’s investigations into the myth and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, “the choreographer looks at history and history looks back.” Now a professional critic, a scholar, and dance enthusiasts look closely at the performance, and one of the artists responds.
The dance piece was the first of Bill T. Jones’s investigations into the myth and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Choreographed in 2008, it was presented on the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s 25th anniversary season and was the first of a series of commissions marking the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.
Last week it was was presented in a high-profile engagement at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires (the Pillow awarded Jones its fourth annual award as an “outstanding visionary artist” this past June, a prize that carries $25,000, the largest cash award in American dance).
For more background on the work, as well as Debra’s superb critical analysis of the performance, see her Judicial Review preview.
The Judicial Review focuses on the responses of Professor Nina Silber of Boston University, a Civil War scholar, and Miriam Ornstein, a Boston-area child psychiatrist, who was joined at the performance by her mother and daughter. The critical reactions of Silber and Ornstein are followed by some thoughts by critic Cash on the points they raise. The artist will also weigh in soon. We invite you to become part of the discussion—send in your observations, arguments, and perceptions.
Majority Opinion: The trio of judges were very enthusiastic about Serenade/The Proposition, relishing what Professor Silber calls its use of “movement, striking visual imagery, music, and the spoken word” to provide “a compelling, yet also impressionistic, examination of Lincoln in history and in memory.”
Adina Ornstein was impressed by the way that “all the dancers seemed really connected; they were flowing and very passionate about the dance and the message they were trying to get across to the audience.”
For Cash, Jones “limns metaphors that become a series of propositions about Lincoln, about the Civil War, about the position of Americans as historical actors, and about how we use our past. In doing so, he creates a window for self-reflection—his own, his dancers’, his audience’s, more questions than answers, more feeling than fact.” The judges were taken by the thoughtful, kinetic energy of the piece.
Dissenting Opinion: No real disagreement about the provocative beauty of Serenade/The Proposition among the judges, only questions raised about how to process a dance piece that was, according to Adina Ornstein, “more like different pieces of a puzzle, and the puzzle was Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.”
Professor Silber wonders about the use of an excerpt from a speech by Oliver Wendell Holmes. For Anna, Miriam Ornstein’s mother, the multimedia presentation enhanced her emotional response, but was also “overwhelming and distracting. Trying to follow the contents of these forms of communications called for the kind of intellectual attention that, for me, was distracting from the beauty of the dance and its power of communication.”
— Bill Marx, Editor, The Arts Fuse
Few figures occupy a more exalted status in American history than Abraham Lincoln. His life has been scrutinized in thousands of books and historical studies. He has been celebrated in film, in painting, in theater, and in musical composition. And while schoolchildren no longer memorize and recite the words of the Gettysburg Address, there are few who have not, from an early age, formed some kind of impression of the sixteenth president.
As a historian who studies the US Civil War and its legacy, I have some familiarity with the voluminous scholarship on Lincoln and some of the controversies regarding Lincoln’s life and deeds that have fueled scholarly debates. Even more, as a historian interested in memory and especially the many and varied ways the Civil War has been remembered, I have come to appreciate how Lincoln has been the subject of constant re-makings and re-imaginings, often transformed in ways that reflect more about the people who do the re-imagining and the times in which he is being remembered.
During the 1930s and 1940s, for example, Lincoln was everywhere. He loomed large on stage and screen (think Henry Fonda in John Ford’s film, Young Mr. Lincoln), even appearing in Aaron Copland’s musical offering, A Lincoln Portrait. More often than not, he appeared as a wise and stable national leader, a comfort to Americans living through the crises of the Great Depression and world war.
Small wonder that Franklin Roosevelt and his supporters would often draw analogies between FDR’s leadership and Lincoln’s. Both men, it was argued, gave aid and comfort to a nation in crisis. Both were concerned with, first and foremost, the common man. Lincoln, said one Roosevelt ally, was “the new dealer of the late 1850 and the early 1860s.”
Our thoughts in recent years have turned toward Lincoln again. His image was repeatedly invoked during the campaign and election of Barack Obama. Many made specific and detailed comparisons between the two; others envisioned more of a spiritual continuity from the sixteenth to the forty-fourth president. Obama himself called up the Lincoln analogy when, during his inauguration, he used the same bible Lincoln had used at his own swearing-in ceremony. Obama’s inauguration also coincided with the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 1809, prompting yet further reflections on Lincoln and his legacy.
These recent events, as well as the long-standing tradition of Lincoln memorialization, permeate the fascinating dance performance, titled Serenade/The Proposition, created by director Bill T. Jones for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Jones’s work is part of a trilogy this African American choreographer has done to commemorate the sixteenth president, the only white man, Jones has said, he was permitted to love unconditionally.
Serenade/The Proposition brings together movement, striking visual imagery, music, and the spoken word in a compelling, yet also impressionistic, examination of Lincoln in history and in memory.
As a historian, I think what I appreciate most about Jones’s work is his very self-conscious understanding of the idea that history is not just something that happened, but is also the story—and often a deeply imagined one at that—that we tell about the past. In this way, he directly embraces the idea that Lincoln has become a symbol with different meanings for different people.
As Jones himself has said, Serenade/The Proposition is certainly not a bio-pic of Abraham Lincoln. Rather, it is a more fragmentary portrait, where Lincoln emerges in bits and pieces: coming to Richmond, Virginia at the war’s end, inspiring later reflections on the meaning of the war, traveling across the country as he assumes the office of the presidency, and then traveling back again on the funeral train from Washington, DC to Springfield, IL.
As part of his recognition that Lincoln has a multiplicity of meanings, Jones, in one of the most compelling fragments, offers a very personal reflection. He juxtaposes Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, VA at the very end of the Civil War just days before his assassination, when the city stood in ruins but the Union was victorious, with an early childhood memory that Jones himself has of coming to Richmond in 1955—now on the eve of the Civil Rights Movement—on a family car trip. In a way, Jones suggests, the Richmond of that 1955 family visit carries the weight from that earlier visit to Richmond made by Lincoln in 1865.
In the 1930s, when Americans imagined Abraham Lincoln, they made him, as much as possible, a real, flesh-and-blood human being, a man with a life that revolved around a known accumulation of facts. Bill Jones, no doubt sensing that such a literal rendering of Lincoln might be viewed with skepticism by present-day Americans, seeks something more evocative.
And, indeed, much of this performance seeks evocation more than duplication. The scenery—mostly a set of movable white pillars—sometimes evokes the storied architecture of the southern plantation house and sometimes the marble columns of the Lincoln Memorial. The costumes, too, gesture toward nineteenth century attire, but do not replicate the older form of dress.
In many of his earlier works, Jones has drawn heavily on the spoken word to enhance the overall aesthetic experience. It is, of course, appropriate that he again turns to oratory in Serenade/The Proposition given how critical language and speech-making were in the life of Lincoln. In most cases, the spoken excerpts give greater resonance to the music and movements. We hear the words of Julia Ward Howe, the nineteenth century abolitionist and composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” For Howe and others in 1861, it was Christ whose “truth is marching on.” Listening today, we hear Lincoln laid over Jesus, further affirming Jones’s contention that Lincoln stands as our “secular saint.”
Lincoln’s own words, especially regarding the inhumanity of slavery, are also used to good effect. Less effective, though, is the excerpt from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1895 speech, “The Soldier’s Faith.” This feels like an arbitrary selection and one that, in fact, runs counter to the spirit of Lincoln that Jones seeks to evoke.
In this speech, Holmes praised the soldier who was “able to face annihilation for a blind belief,” a phrase that suggested it mattered not what the soldier fought for, only that he performed his duty. In effect, Holmes suggested, it mattered not whether the soldier was Union or Confederate. All that mattered was that he fought bravely. Yet, Lincoln was always very mindful of the cause that soldiers fought for, as well as the cause they fought against—whether that cause was, initially, the preservation of the Union or, after 1863, the Union AND emancipation.
Holmes spoke at a time when Americans hoped to heal the wounds of civil war and restore sectional peace, albeit more for whites than for blacks. Bill T. Jones, with a richly diverse company of dancers, brings us a Lincoln steeped in the problems of slavery, emancipation, and civil rights. In this way, Serenade/The Proposition, while it may not bring Lincoln to life, compels us to grapple with Lincoln and his legacy in thoughtful and rewarding ways.
Professor Nina Silber has taught in both the history department and the American and New England Studies Program since coming to Boston University in 1990. Her research and teaching focus on the US Civil War, US women’s history, and the history of the American South, and she offers classes for both undergraduates and graduate students. She is currently researching a new project that examines the various ways that slavery, the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln were remembered, memorialized, and invoked in the years of the Great Depression and New Deal.
Her books include The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900; Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War; Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War; and Gender and the Sectional Conflict.
Anna, Miriam and Adina Ornstein
Three Generations Comment on Serenade/The Proposition
Bill T. Jones’s dance piece uses multimedia—video, live music, spoken text, and of course dance—to ask “What is history?” This piece is the third in a trilogy he wrote celebrating Abraham Lincoln. Three of us in the audience, my mother, who survived WWII; my 11 year-old daughter, for whom history is what she is taught in school or learns from people in her parents’ and grandparents’ generation; and me, somewhere in the middle between memories and books, responded to the piece each from our own perspective.
My 11-year-old daughter, Adina, with her love of dance, focused on the dancing itself. She had this to say:
The best part of the show for me was the way that all the dancers seemed really connected; they were flowing and very passionate about the dance and the message they were trying to get across to the audience. The message was about the Civil War and how something bad happened before something good (the birth of America as one nation) could happen. Bill T. Jones used different techniques to get across his ideas. Some of the techniques were a background video, music, and talking. The script was some of Bill T. Jones’s personal memories and some parts of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. The show was not just a dance, and not really a story. It was more like different pieces of a puzzle, and the puzzle was Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
The dancers were all really outstanding, they flowed really beautifully, but one dancer in particular really caught my eye, and that was Paul Matteson. He was impressive because he was really passionate and brave and not afraid to put himself out there. One of my favorite techniques used is while the dancers were dancing, some would leave and others would seamlessly continue with the combination.
In one part of the piece, one of the dancers stood in the center representing Young America. The other dancers were dressing him in layers. To me that represented the different layers of history that went into making America.
What is history? Adina would say: “It is something that happened in the past that is memorable, something that has happened in the past to change the way we view things.”
I (Miriam) responded primarily to the dancers themselves: their movements, their interactions, their synchronicity. I found the fluidity and precision of their movements superb and engaging. But the show was also intellectually demanding, and I found it difficult to engage fully on an emotional level with the dance due to my effort to focus on the narrative and to hear the text. I contrast this to a brief show we saw the next day by young hip hop students, which gripped me emotionally in a more complete way.
When I ask myself “What is history?” I think it has different meanings depending on our personal experience. I could relate to the image of Bill T. Jones waking up in the car as a young boy to hear his father say, “We are in Richmond, Virginia” and to the impact at that moment for him of living and experiencing history in a more immediate and personal way. I think Mr. Jones wanted the audience to experience Abraham Lincoln’s time in history in a similar, more immediate way by watching his piece. My guess is that he had variable success with this aim, depending on the particular people in the audience.
My mother, Anna, had her own perspective, which follows:
I was looking forward to seeing my first performance by this company, as I had been reading reviews of earlier performances. I was not disappointed; the dancers captivated me from the moment they stepped on the stage. I experienced strong emotional reactions, sadness mixed with a sense of triumph. At first, I did not try to “explain” my reaction, but soon I observed a pattern that may have been responsible for this mixed reaction to the dance.
In the first part of the dance when the dancers appeared dressed in gray pants but with T shirts in variety of colors, I was thinking that this is a perfect statement about the USA as we know her today: multiethnic, multi-religious, striving for a harmonious life as one nation, indivisible. But, that is not reality. The group so harmoniously formed in the middle of the stage did not stay together, many disappeared; differentness, separating people by color and social positions, disrupts the apparent “togetherness.”
But then dancers returned one by one, joining the other dancers in perfect harmony. These patterning of the dance could have explained my sadness (the repeated disruptions, disagreements, struggles) and also my sense of triumph that this country does not give up in its repeated efforts to solve its many problems related to our diversity.
This set of reactions is the product of my own background: a Jewish girl growing up in war-torn Europe and experiencing the horrible crimes of the 20th Century because of racial and religious prejudice. I have a highly idealized view of the USA. The focus of this dance on Lincoln and the Civil War was deeply affected by my own experiences in Europe.
From here on, I experienced the performance as if it had portrayed the birth of a nation, a birth made possible by war. The performance did not only raise the question “What is history? What relevance does the Civil War and Lincoln have for a person born in 1952?” but also “Why do we need wars and other dreadful calamities to embrace a new world order?”
I found the multimedia presentation enhancing my emotional response but also overwhelming and distracting. Trying to follow the contents of these forms of communications called for the kind of intellectual attention that, for me, was distracting from the beauty of the dance and its power of communication.
Our overall impression to this multi-layered experience was a favorable one, and we look forward to seeing other performances from this talented company.
Miriam Ornstein, M.D. is a child psychiatrist. She lives in the Boston Area with her jazz-musician husband and their blended family (three children, two cats and a dog). Her youngest daughter Adina is a 6th grader who loves dance. She takes four dance classes per week including a competition team. Anna Ornstein, M.D. is a psychoanalyst who retired with her husband to the Boston area in order to be close to her grandchildren.
Responding to the Responders
Critic, scholar, family member: we have all responded to the fact that choreographer Bill T. Jones stirs up questions instead of delivering answers. What academics would call a “problematized narrative” strategy and label discontinuous action is summarized in the words of thoughtful, observant 11-year-old Adina Ornstein, Serenade/The Proposition refracts the “puzzle [that] was Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.”
If there is any through line in the span of Bill T. Jones’s work—from his early abstract, post-modern duets with his beloved partner Arnie Zane through the flash and pulse of Broadway’s Fela!—it is that he has come to believe, no, to demand, that people proclaim—and if necessary stake their lives for—what they believe in. What is remarkable about his dancemaking and, perhaps, about the quality of his mind and heart, is that he presents and theatricalizes passionate and serious skepticism.
Professor Nina Silber got it right when she wrote “history is not just something that happened, but is also the story—and often a deeply imagined one at that—that we tell about the past.” It is her job and that of her colleagues to unearth evidence and make the arguments that give us that past to sift through. It is Jones’s job to dramatize it.
Is there a qualitative difference between the past we personally have lived through and the past historians or artists offer us to contemplate? Anna Ornstein, who survived European genocide, would certainly imply so. But each of us also has the burden, the challenge, of reigniting the past and its shadows in the ways we imagine history. Each of us listens to the ways people we are close to speak of it—just as young Adina experiences, through her grandmother’s life, a history defined as “something that happened in the past that is memorable, something that has happened in the past to change the way we view things.” Our own preoccupations shed light backwards.
I returned to the Bates Dance Festival in Maine as its Scholar in Residence this week. In a happy coincidence, I initiated the class I am teaching on dance that responds to life beyond the theater by showing my dancer students clips of Jones’s Lincoln portraits.
During the interview Jones gave with journalist (and unabashed fan) Bill Moyers, the choreographer suggested that his work would convey meaning even without the provocative text and dense musical references he and his collaborators have layered onto the dancing.
I took his dare. I screened a long excerpt of Serenade/The Proposition with the sound turned off.
Now, I know that Serenade/The Proposition without its narrative is not, exactly, Serenade/The Proposition as it is meant to be seen. But what my mostly college-aged students commented on was the aggressive propulsion behind the movements. They saw the way the dancers “swooped” across those stoic pillars and, like Miriam Ornstein, admired the dancers’ “fluidity and precision.”
They cited the alternation between monologue/solo and enmeshed ensemble. These movement languages and spatial arrangements are consequential, symbolic and meaningful, even for audience members who do not have the language to explain what they are seeing, who respond viscerally, emotionally, without knowing how those feelings came to be. Understanding those strategies and the history of those strategies is what dance literacy is about, although that is a story for another day.
But what my Bates Dance Festival students, what the Ornstein family, what Professor Silber, and what, I think, most audiences will take away from Serenade/The Proposition is its urgency. Bill T. Jones’s encounter with Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is expressed in an urgent dance language. It tells an urgent American story, and one that remains unfinished.
© 2010 Debra Cash
Debra Cash has reported, taught, and lectured on dance, performing arts, design, and cultural policy for print, broadcast, and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes, and moderates panels and events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts, Wesleyan Center for the Arts, and venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, this summer she returns as Scholar in Residence to both the Bates Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow.
Associate Artistic Director of the
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
I am not used to responding to audience responses, but this is a great opportunity to communicate. First of all, I love that people came away from the work with any response at all, all valid, and that these people were invested in the “seeing” of the piece.I will write about a few things that caught my attention. I’d prefer to chat with these people over coffee, but this will do.
I loved Prof. Silber’s point about history being also a story that we tell of the past that is sometimes deeply imagined. Adina’s interpretation of our dressing Paul Matteson in “Young America” is different from mine but very interesting. Anna’s viewing of the piece through eyes that have seen so much brings another dimension to the way life and theater infiltrate each other. And Ms. Cash’s response to the responders is perceptive and illuminating. I had to read it twice.
I think of Serenade/The Proposition as our rumination on history using Lincoln’s era as a point of departure. The piece, as you may know, is not really about the 16th president but surrounds him. We dart back and forth between centuries, suggesting the distance between “that man (or woman) and me.”
This may explain our choice of the excerpt by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that Prof. Silber mentioned. I read this in a book that we drew much of our inspiration from as we were making this piece: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. It is a remarkable book that illustrates the transformation of a nation through its loss. The speech, “A Soldier’s Faith,” was given at commencement at Harvard University in 1895. Born in 1841, Holmes was a young, Union soldier during the Civil War. In 1895 he was a Supreme Court Justice.
From my layman’s understanding, I believe that when he was a soldier he did not quite understand why he was fighting that war and, unlike his fellow soldiers, he had little faith in God. The Civil War was probably the most religious war fought on American soil. As Lincoln said in his 2nd Inaugural Address, “both read the same bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”
Holmes understood years later that what he had then was a different kind of faith; it is “that unspeakable somewhat which makes him capable of miracle, able to lift himself by the might of his own soul, unaided, able to face annihilation for a blind belief.” I’m sure that these words moved that graduating class as much as it did me.
His words that are used in Serenade, for me, speak of a generation of men, 620,000 of whom perished in 4 years. I must admit that I cannot begin to understand the faith and courage required to walk in line towards enemy gunfire, or for that matter the blind adherence to a cause that I do not understand. I will never understand. Talk about the distance between that man and me. There may be young men and women today fighting in a war that they do not believe in. The way wars are fought have changed greatly, but maybe the soldier’s faith has not. Talk about distance.
One thing about the work that we do: it is often layered and complex and we hope that the sum of the parts is larger than the individual parts. We do require our audience to work but at the same time to sit back and let it wash over you. In this piece we have dance, music, text, video, set, and costumes playing together as collaborators. Bill likes to compare watching our performance to looking at modern art in a gallery, for example, at a Robert Rauschenberg Combine. You may be looking at newspaper clippings, a stuffed eagle jutting out of the canvas, strings holding a foot, all within the same frame. You may come away with concrete meaning, an impressionistic interpretation, or something as elemental as feeling.
In this piece we juxtapose the specificity of text with something ephemeral and fleeting like dance. Sometimes the text functions as music. The music transports and suggests. The video is used to expand the boundaries of the stage, to travel back in time, move from inside to outside. We hope that each element illuminates the other. Without these other elements, we will still have interesting abstract movement, but the specificity will be missing.
All these elements can be overwhelming, but, as Bill likes to say, life can be overwhelming. We don’t have to understand each moment, but we would like each moment to enter into the audience somehow and be allowed to live within, maybe at least till the next day. I love that Ms. Cash had her students watch the piece with the sound off. We actually stripped the piece down even further, taking away music, text, costumes, set, video.
A few months ago we tried it out in the studio. The dancers knew the piece so well that they did not need music or word cues. Their concentration and unity were impressive. It was amazing, and it was a completely new work. In fact, we liked it so much that we used a lot of the material for a site-specific work we just premiered in Venice, Italy. I hope you can see that too. We’re working on bringing it to the states and will keep you posted.
Janet Wong (Associate Artistic Director) was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore. She was trained as a classical dancer and joined the Berlin Ballet in 1985 after graduating from the Royal Ballet School in London. She met Bill T. Jones in Berlin when he was invited to create a work for the company. In 1993, she moved to New York to study modern dance and enroll in college. She joined the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1996 as Rehearsal Director and became Associate Artistic Director in 2006. Her work includes collaborating with Mr. Jones on the creation of new work, reviving old work from the repertory, training dancers, and maintaining the level of the Company’s performances.
Ms. Wong started working with video in 2004, learning to use some editing software while on tour. Her first projection design for the Company was Chapel/Chapter (2006), followed by A Quarreling Pair (2007), Serenade/The Proposition (2008), Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray (2009).