Deep Blue Sea
Tuesday night I attended the opening performance of Bill T. Jones' Deep Blue Sea, long delayed by Covid, at the Park Avenue Armory here in New York. Like so much of Jones' work, this is a reverie-inducing piece that simultaneously connects you to the performance and the world it represents—and draws you deep within yourself to ask probing questions.
Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? How can we possibly come to know one another? How can we become real to each other?
I've given up trying to decode Jones' work, because the layers are too deep and too rich to fully grasp, at least at a first viewing. Instead, I allow the works to have their way with me, to take me places that only reverie—allowing myself to float along with them—can take me. That was last night's journey.
It was a journey both lyrical and narrative, with movement, gesture, music, song, and words (both ordered and disordered) all working together in an interplay of history, present, and presence. Beautiful, jarring, with barely-contained coherence that drew in the breath of the world outside and held it, held it, held it, before exhaling.
My designer mind—my theatrical mind—was simultaneously abuzz with the visual and technical mastery of the piece. A field of nine projectors focused on the Armory's blond wood floor, generate lighting, as well as environment. Following individual performers, tight circles of light evocatively meld together as dancers move toward each other, while a tight circle of darkness—evoking the utter absence of presence and overwhelming presence of invisibility, follows Jones. The floor projection suddenly, briefly transforms the whole of the space into an ocean, deceptively vast, that utterly transports the feeling of the experience and the import of its subject. Sharp zones of light and dark shape and reshape the performance space and frame its implicit narrative. Maintaining awareness of all of this, my technical mind finally agreed to loosen its grip the emotional mind could experience the performance.
Great art moves each of us in ways that are both unique and unpredictable. At times I've experienced a satisfying feeling of communion with the artist; that sense of having understood exactly what the artist intended. At other times, and last night was one of those, it is more an experience of something ineffable; something that touches on the undefinable sublime.
The conclusion of this extraordinary piece is a succession of statements by its expanded cast of dancers, each beginning with the words "I know..." As I stood to leave my seat, I asked myself what it is that I know as a result of having witnessed Deep Blue Sea.
I know that we have to look inward, or we will be forever blind to everyone (and everything) outside ourselves.