Bill T. Jones American Master Choreographer – Abraham Lincoln – A Good Man?

Bill T Jones A Good Man

Bill T. Jones is the famed choreographer behind the smash Broadway sensation, Fela!   He is well known for his masterful work and has a long career and a long list of accolades attesting to his genius in the realm of the dance.

When I was a writer at the Afrospear blog, I published a piece on the great Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti   that was focused on the revolutionary politics of the man.  Fela Kuti used his musicianship as a weapon against the militaristic regime in Nigeria.  His political stance was informed in part by his revolutionary mother, Funmilayo Kuti and in part by a trip he made to America during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and what he learned of freedom fighting from the movement.

In that same piece, I also included a 10 minute long video of the Broadway show which strived to capture the essence of the man in a stage production.  The actor/dancer/musician Sahr Ngaujah does a masterful job of bringing out the creativity, joyfulness and high energy side of the man, Fela, but for me it is the creative genius of Bill T Jones which deserves the lion’s share of credit.  His dance creation has been described as a masterpiece of showmanship that slides into and manages to expose the heart Fela the man, his music, politics, and revolutionary stance.  That Bill T. Jones was able to convey all of this in the dance is a testament to his profound choreographic talents.

English: Choreographer Bill T. Jones at the Ab...
Image via Wikipedia

Recently I found more of Bill’s work.  A PBS series called American Masters featured Bill T. Jones at work on one of his dance pieces called A Good Man, which imagines the political and moral questions that President Abraham Lincoln faced at the height of America’s civil split, and whether we feel Lincoln’s struggles are relevant to us today.

This episode of American Masters documents Bill as he’s in the process of creating the dance piece.  As a backdrop, Bill is trying to reconcile his five year old self who was taught to love “Father Abraham” unconditionally, to his fifty-six year old self who no longer believed in heroes.  Often, Bill struggles with what exactly he wants the piece to convey about the President.  Then as ideas come, his artistic mind has trouble expressing them to his young dancers in a concrete way they can understand.  They are of a new generation who are not affected by Abe Lincoln in a sentimental way.

Bill fights his own insecurity with tackling the story of “The Great Emancipator” through the “lowly artform of modern dance”.  As he watches his young artists, he works to get his dancers and musicians to release themselves from the youthful tendency toward “intellectual sloth” that he feels they possess.  He wants them to participate more in the interpretive creative process, and they tend to wait for him to tell them what he wants.  Overall, he deals with the emotional rollercoaster of the creative process.

Bill Jones A good man

With all that Bill and the young dancers put into it, in the end, A Good Man can be nothing but a masterpiece.  I haven’t seen it but watching this documentary makes me feel that I have.  This view of a master at work shaping and molding his dancers who then create the dance artistry has opened my world to the expression of dance.

Mine eyes were opened within this 10 minute range of Bill T. Jones’ hour long lecture.  At one point he talked about the importance of  being “ready” for those once in a lifetimes.  He’s telling his audience how he was struggling with which way he could express these great ideas and concepts artfully in dance movements without offending or losing the viewer.  What he does is breaks down a dance into a series of movements, each of which he names.  I feel as though he’s given me a key, a insight into how to look at dance and appreciate it.

These first two clips of Bill T. Jones A Good Man clip one  and A Good Man clip two will give you quick glimpses into what to expect from the piece.  But the
of American Masters gives you the entire process and is so worth watching.  I urge you to do so.

In this excerpt of another lecture, Bill T. Jones is teaching the audience how to receive the piece.  He tutors them on how to look at it.  He’s doubtful about the young people’s ability to grasp it, especially since he believes that many youth of today are far removed and ignorant of American history and President Lincoln’s place in it.

More details of the making – PBS website.  Edited scenes

The final result of the documentary is as much art as the dance piece, in my opinion.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Lin says:

    Yo, Anna May! Whachu know bout some Bill T. Jones, gurl?

    On the real: I respect this man’s talent, his artistry, his vision & his never-say-die life-wish. I appreciate how he continues to create, to inspire & make a LOUD noise in the dance world & in all the creative arts. I’m awestruck at how that he didn’t simply fold his tent, crumble into nothingness, or lay down & die, but continues to thrive, long after he faced his greatest personal tragedy (the loss of his partner Arne & his then his own HIV status). His life would make a great movie, because it’s very human & very, VURRRR inspiring.


    1. Anna Renee says:

      Boy, I be knowing! I be knowing, even though I came about him in a round about way. First I learned of Fela! the broadway show and was mesmerized by the dancing and how it expressed more than dancing. In the first entry scene of Fela!, Fela’s women strolled, hips rolling in through the aisles and up to the stage, leaving the audience breathless! One white man shouted like he was in church! Then here comes Fela cooly striding in and surrounding him are his men, dancing along side him while bent at the waist! WOW!!! That said alot to me about Fela. I was focused on the principle dancer, Sahr Ngaujah, so I did a youtube and then found Bill T Jones talking about Fela!

      Fast forward to now. Im flipping through the channels one evening and land on PBS American Masters episode that I linked and was again mesmerized by this Bill T. Jones!!!!

      Im sorry to hear that he’s HIV positive. But he’s extremely intense and is a brilliant thinker! I love how he imagined that in bringing forth this piece, A Good Man, many would not be interested in an interpretation from an angry black man’s pov, which would be the place most would think he’d come from with a piece like this. He was thinking a few chess moves ahead of his audience. A strategist for presenting dance that teaches! Brilliance, brilliance! I love me some Bill T. JOnes right about now!

  2. Naomi K. says:

    I currently work on the outreach team of “A Good Man” – I’m really glad you enjoyed the film! We’re currently working on having it screened at community centers and colleges across the country, and we frequently feature news about screenings on the Facebook page –

    1. Anna Renee says:

      Thanks so much Naomi K.! That documentary was brilliance on top of brilliance! When you get to the San Francisco Bay Area, let us know!!!

  3. Lin says:

    Fela is a MAGNIFICENT piece of theatre! I guess Will & Jada, Jay-Z & Beyonce knew a good thing to invest their money in & it’s paid off in nothing but prodcucer’s profit. Fela’s character is a fascinating one, a real-life figure/hero in music, & the dance pieces, all brilliant, creative, show-stopping, DOMINATE the entire production! Bill T. deserved his Tony Award for his stunning choreography.

    I stand corrected! You Westsiiiiide gurls, be knowing your Black Art, for real! LOL.


  4. I saw the Fela play several times it was so good. Good to catch up with more of his work, thanks for sharing links.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      @Brother Lin – It’s so interesting that there was not too much talk about these power couples’ investment in Fela!. But not all good things are talked about in the popular media. I admit that I was so pleasantly surprised to learn that they did invest. Black Moguldom right there!

      @MsAfropolitan – I’ve heard that many people saw the play more than once! I loved the little video clip of Seun Kuti’s opinion of the work – he liked!

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