At some points in Deep Blue Sea, the sprawling new Bill T. Jones work at the Park Avenue Armory, the choreographer seems to erase himself. This happens, oddly enough, in a work where he is constantly, insistently present. For the first time in ages, the great Jones actually dances in his work himself. But that’s not all: He and his associate artistic director Janet Wong (along with the members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company) did the choreography, and he seems to do everything else too — writing and reading a manifesto, performing, briefly acting as close-up cameraman for his sweating dancers. Even when he leaves the stage, we hear him speaking as part of the work’s soundscape. Yet his most important moments are when he vanishes in plain sight.
Dressed all in black, his cropped white hair shining, Jones moves around a vast expanse of blondwood floor as the audience looks down from high banked seating on all sides. Even before the lights fade, as people cross the performance area looking for their seats, he roams among us, occasionally striking poses — bending to point at the floor, turning sideways like a hieroglyph. As he goes, he murmurs reversed and torn-up language (“mountainside every from”) that lets you know he’s thinking about winding the clock back on American history. Then, suddenly, after we’ve all been settled and suitably prepared, the circle of light that has been following him around turns black. Instead of glowing in a spotlight, Jones is sunk in a spotdark, a trick of projection or design that boggles the mind every time it happens.
There are a million other set and lighting ideas that crowd into Deep Blue Sea as the evening winds on, but this one never loses its power. (Super-architect Elizabeth Diller and projections designer Peter Nigrini created the visual environment; the lighting design is by Diller, Nigrini and Robert Wierzel.) The visual metaphor twists in your mind, sometimes menacing, sometimes gentle. Does the spotdark represent a moment of privacy in this operating-theater brightness? Or is it like a shadow of an unseen boulder, just before it hits? Whenever the spotlight toggles to circular shadow, the now-unseen Jones starts speaking forward, quoting from Moby-Dick. At the heart of Deep Blue Sea is Jones’s preoccupation with that book’s Pip, a Black sailor who leaps overboard and is left by the crew to lose his senses in the ocean. It concerns Jones that he had forgotten Pip after he read the book as a teenager; it intrigues him that now Pip — who entertains the sailors with his singing and dancing — has grown so important in his imagination. “Pip saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad,” says Jones, and then the company’s other dancers, his dancemates, join him.
For the second time this year, Jones is presenting a piece at the Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall, an impossibly enormous space that still feels shocking, no matter how often you visit it. Its size is a spur to creativity but also a temptation — like a giddy great height or the ocean’s depths, it can coax a mind into taking an impulsive plunge. The problem with the show is this intoxication with scale and muchness: Not all of Deep Blue Sea feels as gorgeously considered as its first half hour. It’s a strange and constantly shifting creation, starting slyly and powerfully, then ending in hurried cliché and awkwardness. Its strengths include the company itself, much of the movement, the eerie electronic score by Hprizm aka High Priest, and a stunning section in which the room seems to fill up with water. But the siren’s call of all that space and design eventually overwhelm Jones’s choreographic sense. The floor is swamped with huge projections — words (often quotes from W.E.B. Du Bois), faces (of Black men), and shifting slices of light — many of which obfuscate the dancing being done. Jones’s company is full of individualistic movers who don’t operate in regimented lines or precise unison, so surrounding them with unforgiving projected geometries makes their beautiful work seem sloppy.
As the 90-minute work begins to grow long, Jones adds more and more elements into the mix. He tips his hat to Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto with his own series of “no’s,” though this creates an accidentally ridiculous effect. “No to science,” he says, “No to non-fungible tokens.” Hoo boy. The elegant shapes of the first section’s fragmented text give way to his stream-of-consciousness: He even tells us about this one time when he was on a cruise ship with Oprah and he talked to someone about Moby-Dick. (The starkness and mystery of that spotdark and the “foot upon the treadle” seem a long way away.) Finally he invites dozens of “civilians” to dance too, though this mostly looks like walking quickly in a giant figure-8, then dancing a revolution — complete with mimed rock-throwing — as Jones recites a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. By the time the hundred or so newcomers are all invited to the microphone to tell us what they “know,” the gesture to democracy and conversation has soured into parody.
“Are you satisfied?” Jones calls out at various points in the show. Each time, his dancers call back, “No!” He has couched this question among quotes from Du Bois, Audre Lorde, and Frederick Douglass, so we know what he means. Are we satisfied with the pace of Black emancipation? Are we satisfied with a ship of state that sails on while Black men drown? Of course we are not. But in an evening as haphazard as Deep Blue Sea the question keeps reverting to the white-haired man in black. Jones has so much to work with — his own staggering charisma, his dancers’ gifts. Yet the floor flickers with yet pages and pages of projected text; 50 people logroll across the floor while chanting numbers; he namedrops Gayle King. These aesthetic gestures pile up, each one extraneous, each one obliterating the one that came before it. So — can he not be satisfied? It doesn’t seem so, no.
Deep Blue Sea is at the Park Avenue Armory through October 9.