Editor's note: The following interview was conducted by phone on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 20, 2020. Eight weeks later, on March 17, New York Live Arts announced the cancellation of the premiere of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company's Deep Blue Sea, originally scheduled to run April 14–25 at the Park Avenue Armory. We have decided to share excerpts from that conversation with Jones, though the premiere of Deep Blue Sea has not yet been rescheduled.
Deep Blue Sea is a massive undertaking. A host of recognized creatives in architecture, design and music are working with Bill T. Jones to fill the Park Avenue Armory's 55,000-square-foot drill hall—among the largest rooms in New York City. "It is my honor to be commissioned by the Armory," says Jones, who also performs in the work, ending a 15-year hiatus from the stage. "But the Armory is a motherf***er. There is no space like it. Where do you rehearse?" The answer has largely been "away from the city," hosted by Bethany Arts Community, MASS MoCA and others; each residency has been a chance to experiment with building a cast of 100 people. "Working people. Family people. Not a bunch of cool dancers from Brooklyn," he says. "Well, some are cool dancers from Brooklyn. They can be between ages 16 and 70. I was going to say 65 but then realized I am already 68, so that's not very fair."
It's good to reconnect—we last spoke in 2011.
Right. Life goes on.
It seems auspicious that today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as his speech "I Have a Dream" is among the source material you've referenced for Deep Blue Sea. How does it appear in the work?
I perform it backwards, with the words in retrograde, so it sounds like a bit of Dada poetry. I suppose it's too late for a spoiler alert now. That speech, though, is an American icon and, for me and for a lot of people, it's as important as the United States Constitution. I grew up in a Martin Luther King–loving household. My parents were very religious people, and I always thought I agreed wholeheartedly with this notion that we shall overcome. Now it's very much an open question.
"Will we overcome?"
Don't you ask the same question?
Right. And why is that? There is a very sticky and potentially explosive conversation that, along with the election, is going to ask us, "Are we really still this beacon, this light on a hill, this conglomerate of disparate groups and stakeholders that we call American democracy?" This work deals with that ambiguity.
Your sources also include Moby-Dick. Where does Melville intersect with Dr. King?
Well, in Moby-Dick there was a little black boy on the boat whose name is Pip. He is an unlikely character among the macho, cantankerous and combative population of the Pequod, which Melville has artfully used as a metaphor for modern society. He is the least powerful person on the boat, and this is what attracted me to him. The fact is, I turned an accusing eye on myself: I remembered so much about the book, but I didn't remember this character! And I suppose reading the book in the wake of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, trans rights, all those things: We look at the under-observed in our society with newfound respect now—at least some of us do. Martin Luther King and Pip come together in that poetic, though tenuous and metaphorical, association.
Is this a first time for you collaborating on production design with an architect?
Hm. Yes, it is. And Liz Diller says, "I don't do décor; I'm involved in dramaturgy."
So much of her and her partners' work is about movement. The High Line isn't really a building at all, but a path; The Shed has movable components; The Juilliard School renovation is about circulation and space…
What you say about movement in their work is very true. Is Deep Blue Sea an architectural project? Yes, it is, and no, it is not.
You once said to me that "creation, when you're in the heat of it, is a near-sacred thing that you don't really control. It controls you." Do you still feel that way, or do you feel more in control now? Do you even want more control?
I don't think it's changed much. I don't think that I have the ultimate agency, particularly when you're working with persons who come from very distant disciplines like architecture, and they are very accomplished artists who have strong senses of their own voices. I am not more free. Am I more diplomatic? I don't know. Am I better at working through problems? Not really, but I do have people around me who are, like Janet Wong, my associate who is an extremely politic and kind person, and yet she's very strong. Whereas I might scream, she has other ways of getting what she wants.
What besides dance interests you today?
I'm reading the work of Octavia Butler, who is in some ways the grande dame of Afro-Futurism, before it even had a name. Now, of course, it's a visual art movement; there is a version that is coming literally from Africa. We are now in the post–Black Panther era, and the black community is not the only community that is interested in speculative space. Native American people, Asian people, queer people, are all in some ways using speculative fiction.
Along with their main objectives, it seems social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo aim to remind us we have physical bodies, as opposed to just virtual identities. Is that another association for you as a choreographer?
I appreciate your framing of the question, but some of us have lived our whole lives, our whole creative lives… [pauses] If you are a black man of my description, and you're working in the white avant-garde, you know these things deep in your bones. Maybe there was no language or no appetite for discussing them as there is now, but it's not like it was a revelation for many of us. I would say to you as a writer, when you say "we," who are you talking about? Who is the "we" that makes aesthetic judgments and defines art movements?
You said earlier that the idea of "we" was a central question of Deep Blue Sea.
That is a central question of my life right now. Because I have been the cool black guy in a room full of cool white people. There was a time when I could count on one hand, Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Blondell Cummings, Ishmael Houston-Jones: There were only a handful of us. Why was that? Let's talk about our history—even in the avant-garde. Let's talk about our history in light of what we have discovered about our society. On that note, I think I have to go because I have to be upstairs in one minute.
I appreciate your time.
Thank you. There is a lot more here we can be talking about. These are questions about the field that I think are crying out for serious attention.