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How Bill T. Jones' 'Deep Blue Sea' explores the collective 'we' of the American people


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now a story of choreography and community, as a renowned dancer and choreographer continues to look hard at who we are.

Jeffrey Brown visits with Bill T. Jones our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: One man, Bill T. Jones roams an enormous space, telling a story of himself and his country.

Bill T. Jones, Choreographer, Director, Author: Brutality, police, the horrors, unspeakable.

Jeffrey Brown: He's joined by a small group of dancers, who enact and move through that story and then by some 90 others, members of the larger community filling the space moving as a crowd.

Man: I know to be Black is to be beautiful.

Jeffrey Brown: Adding their own stories as individuals. It's called "Deep Blue Sea."

Bill T. Jones: The piece is about the pursuit of the we.

Jeffrey Brown: Pursuit of the we?

Bill T. Jones: Of the we. It's thrown around all the time, we the people, we shall overcome. Politicians use it all the time, this we. Who is this we that you're talking about, considering how fractious our country is and how it has been from the beginning?

Jeffrey Brown: Jones has used dance to ask big questions of himself and others since the 1980s, when he and his partner in life and dance, Arnie Zane, first formed a company.

Even as their fame grew, their world was devastated by AIDS, which would take the life of Zane in 1988 and so many others. Jones would go on to create more than 150 dances, early on, "D-Man in the Waters," which directly addressed the loss of his loved ones. It's now the subject of a new documentary titled "Can You Bring It" co-directed by Rosalynde LeBlanc, one of Jones' former dancers.

And he's continued to take on big subjects in American life and history, as in a 2009 work on Lincoln. His choreography on Broadway for "Spring Awakening" and "Fela!" garnered two Tony Awards.

Last spring, amid the pandemic, he premiered "Afterwardsness" in the vastness of New York's Park Avenue Armory, a dance of distance and loneliness, capturing our moment.

Man: They don't remember. We just don't remember.

Jeffrey Brown: Now 69, he returned to the Armory with "Deep Blue Sea," a monologue with movement and projection that transforms the space into the sea itself.

In it, he recalls reading "Moby-Dick" in school, and, years later, realizing he'd forgotten the one young African American character, the cabin boy Pip, who loses his mind at sea.

Bill T. Jones: Pip gets so frightened that he jumps into the water.

Jeffrey Brown: Jones saw parallels to today's loss of young Black lives.

Bill T. Jones: Was it Trayvon Martin or was it Michael Brown in Ferguson? Those things began to happen so regularly. And, as we know, in American society, they have never stopped happening. But they suddenly became mediatized.

And I was putting together my strong reactions to that with the fact that I had not seen this small little character who was, in a way, kind of collateral damage on Ahab's ship.

When I was 16 -- 15, 16, 17 years old.

Jeffrey Brown: Another character here, Bill T. Jones himself, 10th of 12 children, whose parents were migrant farmworkers, first in Florida, then New York state.

Bill T. Jones: The young boy that I was when I read the book actually felt the world was full of possibility. I don't know if my mother and father felt that, but I did. And that's what they wanted for me.

They wanted a world that was full of possibility. Now this piece is asking, what happened to that young boy in me? And how are they doing in you as well?

Jeffrey Brown: But do you want us to see those depths and those revelations as comments on American history, America, where we are today?

Bill T. Jones: I want them to resound with you. Are you a moral person? Do you give a damn?

I don't remember.

And it's so interesting that remembering is re-membering or re-arranging, re-putting something back together, membering. So, remembering, we all do it as human beings. So I would like to provide you an opportunity to rediscover how that function exists in your life.

It has to be entertaining enough, and it has to be full of enough surprises so that you are alert, because I want to believe, as Dr. King believed, that you are basically fair and kind.

The life of a Negro is still, sadly, crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

Jeffrey Brown: Martin Luther King Jr. is another touchstone here, another way to question where we and our country are today.

Bill T. Jones: Art-making is resistance. I don't know if we're the most responsible to people for managing a city or a hospital or a TV station, but you need us there because we're willing to actually ask the questions and look for answers in unexpected directions.

Jeffrey Brown: Inevitably here, too, the pandemic. The audience was required to be vaccinated and masked. But, for Jones, again, the issues go deeper.

Bill T. Jones: My question, is there a we, seemed almost banal now, considering COVID had shown us very clearly, oh, yes, there is a we, not in the high-minded and positive way that you're looking at, but we are heir to literally microbes.

We are heir to vicissitudes of health and politics that we can barely name. But there is something else about the ability to sing together, ability to congregate willingly and handle each other in public. That's what my dance world been. Oh, so there is reason for "Deep Blue Sea" during the pandemic.

Jeffrey Brown: I have seen you describe the pandemic as your second plague.

What did you learn that applies now or makes you think about making art now?

Bill T. Jones: Well, I guess being the son of a Southern Baptist woman, even though I'm an atheist, I do believe there is an over-level of consciousness. Art can do that.

It might not take away all of people's pain, but it might do something else, which is just as good:, give people a context in which they can endure. That's it. Can you make something that invites people in to have a shared experience and keep living? Ah, that's it. Can you encourage people to keep living?

Jeffrey Brown: Bill T. Jones retired as a dancer 15 years ago. He's back performing now, he says, because this work required his full commitment, and he wanted to gather and help lead this larger community.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

Judy Woodruff: And his work is such a gift.

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