Floor designer

Bill T. Jones’s Deep Blue Sea at the Armory

Jones and company at The deep blue sea.
Photo: Maria Baranova

At certain times of The deep blue sea, Bill T. Jones’ sprawling new work at Park Avenue Armory, the choreographer seems to fade away. This happens, oddly enough, in a work where he is constantly, insistently present. For the first time in ages, the great Jones himself dances in his work. But that’s not all: he and his associate artistic director Janet Wong (as well as members of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company) did the choreography, and he seems to do everything else too – writing and reading a book. manifest, play, briefly as a close-up cameraman for his sweaty dancers. Even when he leaves the stage, we hear him speak in the sound frame of the work. Yet his most important moments are when he disappears in plain sight.

Clad all in black, his cropped white hair shiny, Jones walks around a wide expanse of blond parquet as the audience gazes all around from the raised seats. Before the lights even go out, as people cross the auditorium in search of their seats, he wanders among us, sometimes striking poses – bending down to point at the ground, turning sideways like a hieroglyph. In passing, he murmurs an overturned and torn language (“on the mountainside every since”) which suggests that he is thinking of going back in time in American history. Then all of a sudden, after we’ve all settled in and properly prepared, the circle of light that followed him all around turns black. Instead of shining in the spotlight, Jones is cast in a placedark, a projection or design trick that stuns the mind every time it happens.

There are a million more decor and lighting ideas thronging The deep blue sea as the evening wears on, but this one never loses its power. (Robert Wierzel designed the lights; super-architect Elizabeth Diller is simply listed as “designer.”) The visual metaphor twists in your mind, sometimes threatening, sometimes sweet. Does the spotdark represent a moment of intimacy in the light of an operating theater? Or is it like the shadow of an invisible rock, just before it strikes? Whenever the spotlight shifts to the circular shadow, the now invisible Jones begins to speak forward, citing from Moby Dick. At the heart of The deep blue sea is Jones’ preoccupation with this book’s Pip, a black sailor who jumps overboard and the crew lets their senses go astray in the ocean. It concerns Jones that he forgot about Pip after reading the book as a teenager; it puzzles him that now Pip – who entertains sailors with his songs and dances – has become so prominent in his imagination. “Pip saw God’s foot on the pedal of the loom and said so; and so his flight mates called him crazy, ”Jones explains, then the other dancers in the company, his dance mates, join in.

For the second time this year, Jones is presenting a play at Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall, an incredibly huge space that remains shocking no matter how often you visit it. Its size is a stimulus to creativity but also a temptation – like soaring great heights or the depths of the ocean, it can persuade a mind to take an impulsive dive. The problem with the show is this intoxication of scale and grandeur: not all The deep blue sea feels as beautifully considered as his first half hour. It’s a bizarre, ever-changing creation, which begins sly and powerfully, and then ends with a rushed cliché and awkwardness. Its highlights include the company itself, much of the movement, the bizarre electronic score of Hprizm alias High Priest, and an amazing section in which projection designer Peter Nigrini seems to fill the water feature. But the siren call of all that space and design ends up overwhelming Jones’ sense of choreography. The floor is awash in huge projections – words (often quotes from WEB Du Bois), faces (of black men) and shifting slices of light – many of which obscure the dance in progress. Jones’s business is full of individualistic movers who don’t operate in regimented lines or in precise unison, so surrounding them in ruthless projected geometries makes their fine work appear sloppy.

As the 90-minute job begins to lengthen, Jones adds more and more elements to the mix. He takes his hat off to Yvonne Rainer No manifesto with its own string of ‘no’s’, although that creates an accidentally ridiculous effect. “No to science,” he said, “No to non-fungible tokens. Ho boy. The elegant forms of the fragmented text in the first section give way to his flood of consciousness: he even tells us about that time he was on a cruise ship with Oprah and he spoke to someone about Moby Dick. (The austerity and mystery of this dark spot and the “foot on the pedal” seems a long way off.) Finally, he invites dozens of “civilians” to dance too, although it mostly looks like walking quickly in a giant figure 8, then dancing a revolution – with mimed stone throwing – as Jones recites a speech from Martin. Luther King Jr. By the time the hundred or so newcomers were all invited to the microphone to tell us what they “know”, the pro-democracy gesture and the conversation have turned into a parody.

“Are you satisfied? “Jones calls at various points in the series. Each time his dancers say,” No! He phrased that question among quotes from Du Bois, Audre Lorde and Frederick Douglass, so we know what he means. Are we happy with the pace of black emancipation? Are we happy with a state ship sailing while black men drown? Of course we are not. But on such a hit and miss evening as The deep blue sea the question always comes back to the white haired man in black. Jones has so much to work with – his own stunning charisma, the gifts of his dancers. Yet the floor sparkles with still pages and pages of text projected; 50 people roll on the ground chanting numbers; he names Gayle King. These aesthetic gestures accumulate, each foreign, each erasing the one who preceded it. So – can he not to be satisfied? It doesn’t look like it, no.

The deep blue sea is at the Park Avenue Armory until October 9.

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