“This is a triumph in the face of struggle”: The enduring power of Bill T Jones’ ballet in the AIDS era | Dance
TThe movements in D-Man in the Waters are big and fast. Dancers run, slide, or find other graceful ways to throw themselves across the stage. The 1989 ballet produced by the Bill T Jones / Arnie Zane company at the height of the AIDS crisis, and explored in depth in the documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T Jones and D-Man in the Waters, also includes exploits that make you gasp, as when one dancer runs on another’s hunched back, using it to launch into the air like a stork, and trusting another dancer to grab them and rock them on the way down.
D-Man in the Waters is a close contact performance, the kind that would be unfathomable during the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. But it was born out of and in defiance of an epidemic that had a similar tendency to disproportionately affect marginalized communities. The dancers are often wrapped around each other, supporting each other, kissing, united in a show of solidarity as something unspoken threatens to tear them apart.
“This is a triumph in the face of wrestling,” Can You Bring It co-director Rosalynde LeBlanc told The Guardian during a Zoom call alongside her collaborator, cinematographer and director, Tom Hurwitz. “And triumph does not come from individual heroism. Triumph comes from bonding with the people next to you.
LeBlanc, a former dancer with the Bill T Jones / Arnie Zane Company, is currently an Associate Professor at Loyola Marymount University (LMU). She occasionally enlists Bill T Jones, a black gay man living with HIV and a monumental figure in the dance world, to help teach D-man in the Waters to younger generations. In Can You Bring It, LeBlanc and Jones in 2016 are seen talking to LMU student dancers, who usually come from privileged backgrounds. They educate students on the history behind the show and try to make a connection between generations and demographics, which is at the heart of the documentary. Can You Bring It is a dynamic portrayal of the function art has in our lives and the transformative impact D-man in the Waters can have on dancers and audiences.
LeBlanc interviews original company members Bill T Jones / Arnie Zane who remember in vivid and heartfelt detail the devastating circumstances that inspired them to create a lasting and inspiring ballet. The AIDS crisis, which arrived in the stigmatized 1980s and enabled by systemic neglect, tore the artistic community apart. The fear, loss, anger, shame, and guilt back then were overwhelming, as people died while also being blamed for getting hold of them.
The company’s dancers recall the heavy losses in their social circles, with one reporting that half of his phone book was dead. Arnie Zane, co-founder of the company and life partner of Jones at the time, was among them. The whole company surrounded Zane when he died in his apartment. Paramedics, who arrived at the scene later, refused to touch Zane’s body. He ran into Jones and his fellow dancers lifting Zane and placing him in a body bag. In mourning, the company created D-Man in the Waters.
LeBlanc was compelled to create a movie sharing that story when she noticed that her talented students could execute every move with technical precision, but their delivery still fell short of the original performances she was so intimately familiar with. Out of context, there was no urgency.
In a pivotal scene, we see Jones seated in a chair surrounded by the gathered LMU students who are mostly white, female, and socio-economically privileged. Jones is a sophisticated voice whose piercing gaze makes it seem, even through the camera, to sink into your soul. And during this conversation he describes his grandmother’s experience during slavery, the survival instincts he drew from his lineage, and the feelings of shame and unhappiness that haunted him as a man. black gay survivor during the AIDS epidemic.
“He meets them in their humanity,” said Hurwitz. “He does not consider them less for their privilege, no less human than he. And in this he presents a model for the development of a community.
Students don’t just listen. LeBlanc takes them one step further, leading workshops that encourage them to relate the experiences and emotions enveloped in D-Man in the Waters to what is happening in their own lives or to their generation.
“The dance acts like this treasure chest,” said LeBlanc. “When it’s cracked, when you allow it to affect you, you don’t look back and you don’t look forward, you look around.”
If played today, D-Man in the Waters would easily connect with the fear, anxiety, and systemic injustices evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the documentary was shot years ago, during Barack Obama’s last days in power, not long after the Pulse Orlando nightclub was filmed. In their search for an emotional connection between contemporary headlines and the circumstances that gave rise to the original show, students discuss mass shootings as the modern plague affecting them; or at least, touching victims who look like them.
LeBlanc points out that the only black man in the class forges an even deeper connection with the material. In the film, the young dancer named Brandon points out a key difference between the way whites and blacks experience gun violence. While whites are seen as tragic victims. Black people are often blamed for their own victimization, just as the gay community has felt shame and guilt for contracting AIDS.
“He had fake bills, he had a history of drug addiction, he hit a cop,” LeBlanc said, listing some of the excuses used to justify the murder of black men, while reiterating the emotional issues his student found in the story of Bill T Jones and the quick moves of D-Man in the Waters.
“That lonely black male voice is the one that says, ‘Wait a second, gun violence can be a culprit disease for people like me too. “”