Choreographers Bill T. Jones Salutes His Friend Lincoln

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Bill T. Jones is fond of saying that when he was growing up, Abraham Lincoln was the one white man he was allowed to love unconditionally. Sometimes he includes John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert as well.

It’s a catchy sound bite, the sort that comes in handy for people who often find themselves in the spotlight. And it has served Mr. Jones well over the last two years, as he has undertaken one of the most ambitious and challenging projects of an ambitious and challenging career: a commission by the Ravinia Festival in Illinois to create a dance-theater work celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

But stop to consider, given the context, the full import of that line, uttered by this 57-year-old black man. Born to migrant farmworkers in the South, he rose to become one of the most prominent and provocative American choreographers of his generation, a scarred veteran of the culture wars and a Tony Award winner for his work on “Spring Awakening.” “Fela!,” his acclaimed Off Broadway musical about the Nigerian composer and musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti — which he directed and choreographed — opens Nov. 23 on Broadway.

For someone so preoccupied by politics and history, the Lincoln commission represented an enormous — and risky — opportunity, one Mr. Jones at first declined because his company doesn’t take on projects with mandated themes. “I feel my entire artistic life is flying at me like an asteroid belt,” he said during a final intense rehearsal period in New York recently. “I’ve been entrusted with so much.”...

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