In 1989, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company premiered what became known as its greatest dance piece, D-Man in the Waters, created against a background of loss. Zane, Jones’s partner in life and work, had died of AIDS complications the previous year, and a member of the company, Demian “D-Man” Acquavella, was suffering from the disease, which would take his life in 1990. The number, set to Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, was unveiled at the Joyce Theater in New York City to widespread acclaim and is now considered one of the signature responses to the AIDS crisis.
Now a new documentary, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, tells the story of the dance’s creation and re-creation, and how it can still speak powerfully about social issues in general.
“I became a dancer because I saw D-Man in the Waters when I was 16 years old,” Can You Bring It producer and co-director Rosalynde LeBlanc says in the film. She subsequently joined Jones’s company and later became a dance educator.
The film from LeBlanc and co-director Tom Hurwitz, also its cinematographer, shows LeBlanc, with input from Jones, putting together a production of the number at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in 2016, along with archival footage of the piece’s development and interviews with Jones, the dancers who performed it originally, and others. Jones, a much-honored choreographer who is now the artistic director of New York Live Arts, is a gay Black man and long-term HIV survivor.
Bill T. Jones (left) works with Loyola Marymount dancers.
LeBlanc decided to make Can You Bring It because “the absence of AIDS from current political and social discourse in this country has left successive generations without any way to contextualize the spirit and intensity of the art made in response to it,” she says in press notes for the film. She brought on Hurwitz to shoot it in cinéma vérité style.
Can You Bring It makes the point that while D-Man in the Waters was a response to the AIDS crisis at its height, the beautiful, abstract dance can serve as a commentary on any number of challenges facing society. She and Jones asked the Loyola Marymount students to come up with what gives the number meaning for them, to “bring it.” What emerges is a compelling view of art in the making, along with a study of loss and survival.
Co-directors Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz
“Roz and Tom succeeded in telescoping the story of D-Man in the Waters into the future,” Jones says in the press notes. “I look forward to the journey of this film. Because this film should not let people forget — you’re lucky in your life if you have one moment where you’re at once strong enough, brave enough, and resourceful enough to throw down and make something like D-Man in the Waters come into being. This work is not about anybody’s epidemic. It is about the dark spirit of what is happening in the world and how you push back against it.”
Can You Bring It opened last week at Film Forum in New York City and is having in-theater and virtual screenings at sites around the country. It opens Friday at the Royal Laemmle in Los Angeles and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Calif., as well as this weekend in San Francisco at the Roxie (virtual Friday, in the theater beginning Sunday). More screenings will follow in a variety of cities. For more information about the film and where to see it, visit D-ManDocumentary.com. Watch the trailer below.