Stephanie, Jane, and I saw *Deep Blue Sea* at the Park Avenue Armory on October 9, 2021. It's a new dance piece by the great choreographer Bill T. Jones. Stephanie and Jane had seen Jones in performance way back into the 70s and 80s - - I only go as far back as the 90s, but the piece I saw then, *Still / Here,* was so powerful, it really made an impact on me. I still remember it very clearly, all these years later. We all had our hopes up for this piece, and it delivered.
It was a grand and ambitious work. Jones bit off a lot and it was a resounding success. Jane said, “I get the sense that though BTJ brought up a series of social issues and inequities, he is a satisfied performance artist. He seemed at peace with himself despite the unrest.”
I was especially excited to see him do a piece in the Armory's Drill Hall, a performance space nearly as big as a city block. I knew that he would use the space in an inventive way, and he did. This is the thing with Jones: he's a choreographer, so of course dance is the primary element of his work, but his pieces always feel more like theatre than they do like pure dance. He brings in elements of spoken word, he interacts with the music in an unusual way, and there's always a strong element of design.
The show opened with Jones dancing alone, to no music, on the huge blond wood floor of the Armory. He's 69 years old but his instrument is still supple and divine. Seeing him dance (and he danced quite a lot) was one of the highlights of the show. Jane described his dancing (and the dancing of the late great Merce Cunningham) as “commanding.” These elders have something so intense and bone deep, after many years of dancing in front of the public. Stephanie said, “The flexibility, economy of movement, and continued suppleness of his body amaze me!”
Eventually Jones started speaking, along with his dancing, and his text was abstract. He did a few repeated movements, a little skip step, a booming stomp on the floor. Jane said, “He has a stomp that would scare elephants.”
At the very start of the piece a few audience members had to walk through the space and walk past him, which was peculiar. One poor woman walked across the floor completely alone and Jones gave her a look over his shoulder that got a rueful laugh from the audience.
Two dancers came onstage, on opposite ends of the space. They mirrored each other's movements, each of them followed by a spotlight. Two more dancers came in, again mirroring each other, again with two spotlights. Eventually there were ten dancers onstage, creating fascinating patterns. The music had started by now - - the live music was by Nick Hallett. It took me a while to realize that the music was live, since it was amplified and it move in so seamlessly from the electronic music we had heard before. The small ensemble of singers were extraordinary (Jane used the words “sensational” and “bone chilling”) and the sound design was first rate.
One theme of the piece was *Moby Dick,* with a particular emphasis on the character of Pip. I've never read the book and Stephanie encouraged me to get on that! Someday. Jones had been talking about the character of Pip, the dancers were doing something as an ensemble, and the lights went out. The space was completely dark for a few minutes, the ensemble was singing. I was about to say the lights came up, but they really didn't - - a video projection of the blue ocean was projected onto the floor. Plus they had drawn the curtains on the sides of the stage (the audience was seated on platforms built about seven or eight feet off the floor) the reveal mirrors, so they reflected the ocean video. It was entrancing.
All ten dancers in the ensemble were astonishing in their ability and expression. Jane said that while the dancers were very well rehearsed and the choreography was interesting, there was very little emotional connection in the dancing. Stephanie and I were most struck by Marie Lloyd Paspe, simply because she was so tiny. I imagine she was five feet tall, or maybe shorter, and yet so incredibly powerful. Jane worked as a dancer for many years and said, “Every modern dance group has its token small person.” She was particularly struck by a duet for Marie and one of the male dancers. That was a striking piece of choreography, beautifully danced.
The final section of the piece started with other people we had not seen walking into the space, eventually around 100 dancers. Jones had choreographed them in interesting ways. One sequence had Jones in the center of the stage, standing still. The group was in a cluster, moving around so individual dancers would be in the center of the cluster, then move through it to the outer edge, then dive back in. All of it happening quickly, a constantly shuffling, shifting mass. Stephanie called it "swarming," which is a good word for it. They slowly moved, as a mass, from one side of the space to the other, at one point ingesting Jones and then leaving him behind.
The piece ended with each of the 100 dancers taking a moment at the microphone saying a short one-sentence statement starting with the words, "I know." A few examples I've made up to give you the general sense:
"I know I'm fortunate to make my living as an artist."
"I know this country will get nowhere until we work through the problem of racism."
"I know complacency is destruction."
A few people made angry statements about racism, which were applauded by some members of the audience. One of the themes of the piece was, "How does it feel to be a problem?" All 100 of these statements were interpreted in American Sign Language.
This was a very powerful and memorable way to end the show, a statement about every member of the community having a voice and deserving to be heard.