There is a “myth” out there, says MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Bill T. Jones, that his seminal dance work, “D-Man in the Waters,” is solely about AIDS. But if the landmark piece of postmodern dance were restaged today — during our current COVID crisis — it might take on a whole new meaning.
That is the driving theme of the new dance documentary, “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters,” now screening as part of DOC NYC’s virtual film festival through Nov. 19. Tracing the history of “D-Man in the Waters” from its birth out of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s to its 2016 recreation with Loyola Marymount University (LMU) students in Los Angeles, the film drives home the timelessness of Jones’ masterpiece. Its recent release during month eight of quarantine rings with even greater resonance as we face the AIDS of our time — COVID-19.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re in a pandemic, and suddenly this film is getting traction,” says “Can You Bring It” co-director and producer Rosalynde LeBlanc, associate professor and chair of dance at LMU. An alumna of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, she staged a portion of “D-Man” on her students in 2016 and documented the process in “Can You Bring It.” She made the film a vehicle for educating dance students about the history of “D-Man in the Waters.” The dance work was initially choregraphed in the wake of the AIDS-related death of Jones’ partner Arnie Zane and while one of Jones’ own company members, Demian “D-Man" Acquavella, battled the disease at the end of the ’80s.
In September, winning a Ford Foundation grant and the film’s acceptance into the DOC NYC festival spurred LeBlanc and her film team to finish the documentary, eight years in the making.
“I just felt like this is our time. COVID is raging. Trump is still in the White House. This film needs to come out now,” she says.
In “Can You Bring It,” there are striking parallels between the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. LeBlanc observes that President Ronald Reagan’s response to the AIDS epidemic and President Trump’s response to the coronavirus served each leaders’ respective political ends. Reagan cast AIDS as a cautionary tale to promote “a very hetero-normative conservative agenda” of family values, says LeBlanc. For Trump, “he made it [the coronavirus] about freedom… and the symbol of freedom is to not have to put a mask on your face.”
“I think both in AIDS and in COVID, we have seen a politicization of the disease that gets in the way of simply helping… your citizens,” says LeBlanc. “COVID and AIDS really walked the same path in that, unfortunately.”
Fear of an all-encompassing existential threat also emanates from the interviews of original “D-Man” cast members, recalling the particularly acute impact of AIDS on New York’s artistic community at that time.
“I remember half of my phone book had died,” recalls dancer Heidi Latsky, which brings to mind the ever-increasing coronavirus death numbers (over 240,000 people in the U.S.).
“We’re all going to die! Can we live through the Joyce season?” recalls Jones, who is HIV positive, referring to the prominent dance venue in New York. “Literally, I remember saying that.”
“It was desperate times,” company alum Seán Curran sums up.
“As a planet, we’re really confronting the presence of mortality,” says LeBlanc, reflecting on how the coronavirus, much like AIDS, brings death into focus. “We’re being made aware of the presence of mortality.”
While Jones himself has long insisted that “D-Man” is not about AIDS — “Yes, Arnie had died. Yes, AIDS was everywhere. Yes, we were working through the plague. But now the whole thing is the piece was my response to the plague. … It never is that clear,” says Jones in the film — LeBlanc points out that the dance is “of AIDS.”
“It couldn’t have existed unless AIDS happened,” she says. “I do think that, for me, ‘D-Man in the Waters’ somehow archived or captured a certain energy that was in the air when I was young, and I moved to New York City, and it was the height of the AIDS crisis. There was a real friction of these two opposing forces. One was this melancholy death, you know, decimation, all these bodies, all these people walking through the streets, who are clearly sick, and the depression of that. And then this counter surge, which was the mobilization, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the grassroots effort, the education campaigns, the art that came out of it. There was this counter energy that was so vivacious, and so much about living and so much about urgency, not taking each other for granted. … And I feel like ‘D-Man’ captures the friction; it really lives in that friction as well.”
Indeed, the energetic, spirited and lyrical dance — imbued with abundant swimming imagery — can move from buoyant and lively to somber and soaked with heaviness when bodies collapse into one another, like souls fallen to battle or illness. The ensemble’s greenish, almost fatigue-like costumes evoke soldiers uniformed for battle — whether against disease or war is open to interpretation.
“There will always be generations of people decimated by some scourge, be it war or illness, always,” says Jones like a wise sage magically speaking to both the past and the present in the film. “There are tragic events that in some ways define generations.”
Yet the ensemble’s mission, it seems, is not to destroy or wallow in death but to overcome whatever tragedy sits at the center of the piece through the joyful, connective, life-affirming power of dance.
“There's this joyous celebration of survival but at the same time there's all this falling and carrying and struggle throughout,” says Latsky in the film.
For the original dancers of “D-Man in the Waters,” the dance was a way to grieve not only the memory of Zane but also come to terms with Acquavella’s illness. He passed a year after the work’s premiere.
“I think when we were making and doing ‘D-man in the Waters,’ there was a clear idea that some of us are going to get through with this, and some will not,” muses Curran in the film. It’s a statement that feels almost tailor-made for a world at a crossroads on how to grapple with the coronavirus and mourn for its countless victims. “The ones who were not going to get through with it, we have to care for and nurture and love and then, you know, let them go with love. But the ones who are going to stick around how are we going to get through this? How are we not going to dissolve into grief? Maybe it is an impossibility. But the dance worked.
“There was some healing, cathartic ritual in the making and the doing of this dance that sustained us,” says Curran at another point in film. In Acquavella’s obituary, The New York Times described “D-Man” as “a celebration of Mr. Acquavella's determination to fight his illness.”
“I think it definitely shows the ways in which the arts become essential in challenging social times,” says LeBlanc of the dance’s presentation in the film. “It’s a way to move, to keep moving. … It shows us that dance is revitalizing; it is essentially healing.”
Ultimately, the power of “D-Man,” LeBlanc believes, lies in the piece’s ability to evolve with the times, no matter when its restaged or watched.
“I think it’s a very adaptable piece that is able to kind of move into its time period,” says LeBlanc. “As Bill says in the film, ‘There’s always going to be a scourge.’ We’re never going to get to a place where those things aren’t happening. And so, ‘D-Man’ reflects the struggle. The struggle of the group. The struggle of the person.”
It’s a sentiment that Jones echoes in the film when he asks the LMU students tackling his work what “D-Man” means to them in their contemporary moment.
“What is ‘D-Man’? Is it alive now? Is it a cautionary tale? It is one of inspiration?” challenged Jones. “What do [you] share that is so big, so tragic that you need a piece like this to move it and give it body? Is it about ISIS? Is it about rape on campus? What is it about?”
You’ll have to watch the documentary to see how students answer that open-ended question for themselves, but LeBlanc does point to the very interconnected nature of “D-Man” as an apt “metaphor” for our lives right now as we collectively confront a contemporary global health crisis. A difficult dance, it consists of 38 minutes of non-stop leaps, jumps, catches and trust falls that rely on the cooperation of its nine ensemble dancers to be fully executed.
“You can’t get through that dance by yourself,” she says. Similarly, “We need the neighbor to wear their mask when they go to the grocery store. We need that as part of our survival, too, you know? So, I think the dance acts as a wonderful metaphor for the way in which we are all connected; we all affect each other.
“I think that one of the things that the film really stresses is, we are all connected,” she adds. “AIDS happened to us. COVID is happening to us. You can’t really say that you are immune to the things that go on with your fellow citizens because we’re all connected.
“And so now, we’re back into a place where we feel like we can’t take each other for granted,” she also says. “We can’t take a hug for granted. We can’t take even eye contact for granted, and what it’s like to be in reality with each other, to actually be in the same room with each other, not on FaceTime, not on Zoom, but in the same room. We have been forced to not take that for granted anymore. And that’s the world of ‘D-Man.’ That’s what ‘D-Man’ evokes and invokes as well.”
Tickets to DOC NYC’s virtual screenings of “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters” are available on this link.
Top Image: Clasped hands from “D-Man in the Waters” performance. | Courtesy of Rosalynde LeBlanc