Last Tuesday night’s performance of “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray,” presented by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, marked Arts & Lectures’ first presentation at the Granada this season and served as an inspiring evening for dance theater in Santa Barbara.

This presentation — a tribute to Abraham Lincoln — comes nearly 20 years after Bill T. Jones first explored the history of slavery and its consequences with “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,” and it revisits similar themes dealing with America’s past.

Janet Wong, associate artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, said the company’s goal was never to make a biopic in the traditional sense of the word, but rather to connect the past to our modern world.

“It is ultimately about us,” Wong said. “A reflection of us.”

The company’s impressive work certainly conveyed this message to the packed Granada audience, as the projected image and distant sounds of Lincoln’s “Ghost Train” gently transitioned us all the way from scenes of the past to scenes from our present reality and finally forward to a palpable future. The talented cast of dancers (depicting characters both factual and fictional) seamlessly tied music, spoken word and beautiful motion together to present not only the trauma of slavery but also the current turmoil of violence in the Middle East.

Following a jolt of light, musician Clarissa Sinceno’s entrancing song pulled the audience into the magic of the stage, as she walked through the audience with a searchlight, beginning an adventure through time. The dancing began with Shayla-Vie Jenkins’ solo expression of the body, performed on a small, circular stage that extended into the audience and synched up to a recorded recitation of Walt Whitman’s “Poem of the Body.” Opening the giant circular curtain in the middle of the stage, this text was repeated twice more throughout the performance, bringing together the horrors of slave auctions of centuries past with the present atrocities of government-sanctioned torture practices.

This repetition and transformation of “Poem of the Body” used the spoken and enacted form of the human body to connect the people of Lincoln’s age, including himself, to the people of today, indeed reflecting the diverse cast and invoking the audience to feel represented as well. Modernity and antiquity was also blended in the accompanying music, which ranged from moving spirituals to loud electric guitars and back and forth throughout the progression of the performance’s action.
Perhaps the most pertinent and straightforward expression of Lincoln’s universal and timeless legacy was within the representation of Lincoln himself. The narrator, when voicing Lincoln, reminds the audience of his eternal presence.

At the end of the performance’s beautiful celebration of history, diversity and human connection, the narrator again speaks directly to the audience, this time seeming to portray the voice of the company within the voice of a man born in 2009.

Like you, Lincoln is a story we tell ourselves and, more importantly, we tell our children,” he said. “We dedicate and consummate ourselves to finish his work. … still believing in great men and women.”