In 2007, the Ravinia Festival in Chicago commissioned renowned modern dance choreographer, director and multiple Tony-award winner Bill T. Jones to create a performance to commemorate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
Fortunately for viewers of the documentary “A Good Man,” veteran filmmakers Gordon Quinn and Bob Hercules were there as The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company struggled to present Lincoln’s life and legacy through movement and music. The film was screened at SilverDocs in June and will air in November on PBS’s “American Masters.”
Jones puts his dancers, actors, composer and musicians through sometimes torturous paces as he, with their help, deciphers, creates, then manifests his vision, which is never completely static. Jones makes changes up to rehearsals at the Ravinia Festival. But the true nature of his gift is captured by the filmmakers when we see how haunting this change is to the piece.
“He was the only white man I was allowed to love unconditionally,” Jones says of Lincoln. But who Lincoln was is much harder to convey than the simple idea of “The Great Emancipator.”
Jones wrestles with insecurities and artistic frustration, but his honesty about it endears him to the viewer. He’s tougher on no one more than he is on himself. In one close-up, as Jones is immersed in thought, his face looks like it’s carved in stone until he pulls his cheek, and the skin stretches and takes a second to settle back onto his face.
Throughout the film, Hercules and Quinn intertwine scenes of the final piece, “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray,” reminding us that the result is an electrifying and beautiful abstract of words, music and, dance. The filmmakers spotlight others in the company. Dancer Asli Bulbul, from Turkey, cast as Mary Todd Lincoln, says she joined the BTZ/AZDC after playing too many “(expletive)” swans. Dancer Lamichael Leonard, as a child, borrowed a book about Jones from the library and became so fascinated, he never returned it.
The filmmakers have a long history in non-fiction film. Gordon Quinn is Artistic Director and founding member of MacArthur Genius Award winning Kartemquin Films, which has produced documentaries for 45 years, including the acclaimed “Hoop Dreams.”
Bob Hercules has made documentaries for 25 years. Hercules’ company Media Process Group has produced films for Discovery and PBS, and in 2006 he co-produced and directed “Senator Obama Goes to Africa” which included a visit to the junior senator’s late father’s home.
Both spoke of the importance of SilverDocs. “It’s a festival that’s a very nice balance of creating real opportunities for filmmakers and people involved in documentaries to connect with each other, but to also connect with the public,” Quinn says.
The filmmakers let Jones guide how he discusses Arnie Zane, Jones’ professional and personal partner who died of AIDS in 1988. “That was something we wanted to explore, but we knew it would be delicate,” Hercules says. “He wanted to talk about Arnie as a creative inspiration and partnership in that way so that’s how we talked about Arnie and that was fine.”
Hercules and Quinn only touch upon Jones’ current relationship with his longtime partner, BTJ/AZDC Creative Director Bjorn Amelan, giving us only a few glimpses of Amelan’s calming influence on Jones.
“Our interest in Bill T. Jones is as an artist and as a creator. So, yes, he’s African American, he’s gay,” Quinn says. But for the filmmakers, those details don’t define the man. “He is an American master,” Quinn says.
The chance to tell a multilayered story is what drives the collaborators. Says Hercules, ”Even in our film, which is really about the creation of art, for the audience, it still brings up a lot of issues to think about: slavery, the legacy of Lincoln, democracy, what is democracy today, things like that. But it’s all done through a story.”
Quinn noted the parallel between the documentary filmmakers’ and Jones’ process . “It’s not all laid out in a book or in a script or something. He’s working it out, and struggling with the material as he’s going along to try and get it to something new, something really exciting.“
“A Good Man” airs on American Masters on November 11. For more information go to agoodmanfilm.com.