Blood red in a spray paint-like font, the words are projected onto the stage at a certain point in time. The deep blue sea: “How does it feel to be a problem?” The words grow into blobs, and suddenly the whole scene is engulfed in crimson. Two dancers, Barrington Hinds and Marie Lloyd Paspe, twist energetically into each other’s form – a recuperation of the bloodbath atmosphere in a pas de deux of incredible agency and beauty.
Bill T. Jones does it again and again – sparking moments of hope from despair – in The deep blue sea, which had its pandemic-delayed local premiere Friday night at the Mann Center. At 70, Jones is revered as a great old man of dance, yet this new work, commissioned by the Manns, couldn’t be more up-to-date. Jones himself is always present in the room as a speaker and dancer, but it’s through his broader role as a creative catalyst for a cast of dancers, musicians, light artists and others that The deep blue sea takes advantage.
The degree of control Jones wielded over all aspects of multimedia is unknown and not necessarily relevant to the public, but the general feeling was one of wise influence letting artists do what they do best. .
Jones establishes an unlikely narrative device that recurs in the 100+ minute piece. He tells how, as a schoolboy, he studied Moby-Dickand how later in life he revisited the story and came across the question of Pip, the black cabin boy.
“We don’t remember him. Why?” asks Jones.
Pip is left behind in the story, a figure lost and floating in the sea, and the metaphor of black America is no less powerful for being obvious. The terror of being separated from humanity is more than one can bear. A lone countertenor is heard, a small choir joins in, and the 10 dancers of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company roll across the stage, moving and shaking like a wave before darkness engulfs Pip.
Jones is the organizer of at least half a dozen art forms and genres in The deep blue sea, all gathered in a place of great intimacy that is new to Fairmount Park. Performers and a small audience (around 275) are both on the main stage in this new setup, dubbed Downstage @ the Mann, with a black curtain added to the edge of the stage completing the enclosure. Sophisticated light projections flicker and move across the stage floor, amplifying the message. When a spotlight on a dancer suddenly turns into a black circle, effectively obliterating a person, you feel it.
Humanity erased, characters forgotten, people violated – The deep blue sea is first and foremost a social justice play, and Jones acts as a kind of wise poet on its behalf. “Revolution is not a one-time thing,” he says, echoing writer-activist Audre Lorde. He invokes police brutality and January 6, suggesting his play has only grown in power and relevance since the originally scheduled 2020 premiere was thwarted by the pandemic.
It is the fact that a large part of The deep blue sea is sophisticated and intricate that brings out a moment as if somewhat layered. Two microphones are placed on stage towards the end, and one by one, professional and community dancers come up and testify about what they believe about race, equality and other issues.
Elsewhere, and densely packed, the synergies were elegantly constructed and powerful. Bright, nimble images of text and human faces move across the stage. The design by Elizabeth Diller (of New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro) and Peter Nigrini not only provided a changing dance floor, but one that often interacted with the dance. Nick Hallett’s original music, a small choir, and substantial input from other sound designs – combined with the tight ‘black box’ setup – made the Mann and the outside world disappear.
To better focus on the dance, which both in its individual and ensemble work was stunning in drawing seamlessly from traditional ballet movements as well as modern gestures. Jones moves the bodies around the stage like sculptures, even non-professional ones. He carried the idea of a sea of humanity to the end of the work, where a few dozen dancers became a tight, bubbling whirlwind.
One of the most striking moments is surely towards the middle of the room, where a projection transforms the whole floor into an ocean. It’s a stunning image, but also vast and desolate, and one that raises a disturbing ambiguity. Who have we left here and now? Beauty and horror neither contradict nor soften in the world of Bill T. Jones. Often they simply coexist on the razor’s edge, raising hopes or fears that one day one might convert the other to their cause.