Words and images from Bill T. Jones’s Serenade/The Proposition flicker through my mind the way leaves swirl down from a wind-shaken tree. No matter how much I study their patterns or attempt to rake them into a mental pile, they elude easy interpretations—or rather offer a multiplicity of possible ones.
Both Serenade (2008) and Jones’s Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray, which premiered this past summer at the Ravinia Festival, were inspired by ideas springing from this year’s bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. I sense that Fondly more directly connects Lincoln and the Civil War with ideas rolling around in Jones’s brain about a divided country, slavery, discrimination, and wars for which God is assumed to give his blessing. Watching the glories—and there are many—of the multilayered Serenade at the Joyce, I kept thinking that Jones knows more about all of these subjects than he’s conveying to us. A collage on the wall is easier to grasp than one on the fly.
Like the six white columns in Bjorn Amelan’s elegant set, everything in Serenade can be moved and changed. The columns may allude to the hilltop Virginia State Capitol, whose façade, I believe, is projected at one point. Intricately divided black-and-white cityscapes (video design by Janet Wong) race along the backcloth. Robert Wierzel’s magnificent lighting creates myriad glowing contrasts between glare and darkness. In the score—composed, arranged, and performed by Jerome Begin (keyboards), Lisa Komara (vocals), and Christopher Antonio William Lancaster (cello)—Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” lose their triumphant air as they drift out of discordant new tunes.
Jones’s subjects are memory, history, and the distances that stretch between eras of a country and between the years of a person’s life (the dancers’ memories link Lincoln with their third-grade social studies classes). Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, fell to the Union Army in 1865, and President Lincoln traveled there upon hearing the news. In 1955, narrator Jamyl Dobson tells us, Jones, his parents, and his many brothers and sisters—crammed into a car—drove to Richmond. Some of the names of cities that Dobson intones on and off could refer to the Jones family’s trip, others to the route of Lincoln’s body home to Springfield, Illinois.
Dobson, grave and dignified, wears a contemporary dark suit and tie, and speaks words by Jones, ones from Lincoln’s addresses, and ones from a text by Frederick Douglass. Dancer Paul Matteson takes over the lectern to deliver excerpts from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1895 speech “The Soldier’s Faith.” Spoken and sung words often tumble together, blending or overriding one another. The red-white-and-blue costumes (attributed to Anjia Jalac and the dancers, “with special thanks to Liz Prince”) that the dancers add to their original simple ones are themselves layered collages; Leah Cox wears what might have begun life as a man’s navy-blue jacket that covers one shoulder and slants down to become an asymmetrical overskirt.
The river of choreography by Jones, Wong, and the dancers features Jones’s characteristically bold, juicy, unapologetically eclectic style, in which movements you’ve never seen before mate with a ballet step or a familiar leap. Always marvelous to look at, the dancing is most gripping when it relates most closely to the ideas at hand. Matteson’s tremendous opening solo suggests Lincoln’s meditations and perhaps Jones’s, too; his weakened rendition of some of the same motifs—before he collapses into another performer’s arms and gives what might be farewell caresses to others—brings Lincoln’s life and the piece to a close. When Dobson speaks of history as a feat somewhat like riding two horses as once, especially when they’re going in opposite directions, Peter Chamberlin, Maija Garcia, and Matteson tangle in impossible ways.
Sometimes the movement embodies the push-pull of war or politics. Intermittently, the 10 performers hurl themselves into wildly different physical explosions, as if under fire or maddened by fear. Matteson rushes around catching his comrades as they fall in mid-dance. Other vignettes are more enigmatic. After a great routine by Matteson and Erick Montes, the other dancers applaud, but when Antonio Brown raises his hand over their clasped ones, I wonder if we’re watching both an armistice and a gay wedding.
Reiterated and varied tableaux function as a powerful device: All of the terrific, highly individual dancers (including Asli Bulbul, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, LaMichael Leonard, and I-Ling Liu) form a line stretching away from us and strike poses that might have been assembled from patriotic statuary groups—the fallen, the fighting, the grieving.
This much is clear: Serenade/The Proposition admonishes us to look into our hearts and at the world around us and consider the lessons of history. With liberty and justice for . . . all?