Review: 'Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones And D-Man In The Waters' a Stirring Documentary and Consummate Dance Film

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 14, 2021

'Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones And D-Man In The Waters'
'Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones And D-Man In The Waters'  

"Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones And D-man in the Waters" is a stirring documentary by filmmakers Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz. It documents the circumstance and legacy of "D-Man in the Waters," the first solo dance work created by choreographer Bill T. Jones after the death of his artistic partner and lover, Arnie Zane, of AIDS, in 1988.

The film follows LeBlanc, who was in the original cast of "D-Man," as she stages a revival of the piece with 14 students at Loyola Marymount University in 2017. The documentary also tells the story of the circumstances of its creation and its enduring legacy of love and loss in a perilous time.

Jones and Zane were an out biracial gay couple who moved to New York in 1976 and formed their company in an otherwise very closeted and non-diverse dance world.

By the mid-80s, the city was the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, and the dance world was one of the hardest hit of the fine performing arts. Zane was the principal choreographer at the time, and when he died Jones did not think he would survive the loss, let alone keep the company going.

The first day the company was back in the studio, Jones didn't know what was going to happen. He randomly put on the propulsive music of Felix Mendelssohn's "Octet for Strings," a work that at once conveys a sense of passion and urgency. Suddenly, the dancers were moving in a line, rushing in front of each other, and bursting with spontaneous movement.

From those fragments, Jones created phrases, and "D-Man in the Waters" emerged, with its theme of human bodies moving in the waters - swimming, submerged, being pulled and tossed, struggling, clutching each other, and conveying a world of survival or loss. The choreography is full of dancers hurling around each other, group sculptures that constantly evolve into daring leaps and drops. It depicts an environment where humans must help each other or die from an unstoppable force.

Humans traversing in dangerous waters is Jones' allegory for the AIDS epidemic's impact on the dance world. It is a dance requiem for the very personal loss of Arnie Zane, as well as a generation of artists lost to AIDS. The D-man of the title is an elegy to company member Demian Acquavella, whose nickname was D-man, who fell ill while in rehearsals for the dance. The piece was a triumph at its premiere, and it has become symbolic for its cathartic effect on dancers and audiences.

When Bill T. Jones comes into the studio to meet the student dancers at Loyola University and assist LeBlanc in casting, he talks to them about the genesis of the work. When he discovers that many of them don't know much about the history of the AIDS epidemic, Jones lets them know that "D-man" was his response to the AIDS plague, and its creation was a "place to grieve" and figure out how to move forward.

It is also Jones' direct artistic response to the AIDS. The troupe was also mourning collaborators Keith Haring, who designed sets for them, and designer Will Smith. At the premiere at the Joyce Theater, Acquavella could barely walk, but Jones made sure he was on stage with them, in one iconic scene carrying him on and off stage. The show was hailed by critics; more importantly, audiences everywhere connected with this ballet about love and art, loss and plague, and community.

Jones challenges the company: As they dance the piece, they should think about what issue impacts them and their generation most. "Can you bring it?" he asks them. Can they confront and figure out how to overcome and survive? These students see the gun violence in schools and the lack of action by the government as something that is always in the forefront of their minds.

This is a consummate dance film about art as witness, and its importance to culture and humanity. Short interview segments of the original company members from the premiere run talk about working with Zane and Jones. LeBlanc and Hurwitz beautifully weave together clips of the student performance, and their creative revelations about dancing this piece. The archival film of the premiere performance and the Jones/Zane revival in 2013 is masterfully edited, showing that this first dance piece by Bill T. Jones has lost none of its power to inspire.

"Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones And D-Man In The Waters" screens at Frameline on June 19

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.