In 1989, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company premiered a dance work called D-Man in the Waters. “D-Man” was the nickname of company member Demian Acquavella, who appeared onstage in that first performance but was too weak to dance. The following year, he died of AIDS. Zane, who was Jones’ life partner and the company’s cofounder, had died of the same disease in 1988.
Bookended by loss and conceived as a fierce response to the ongoing AIDS epidemic, D-Man encompasses both tender expressions of solidarity and exhilarating bursts of athleticism. Dancers slide across the floor on their bellies, leap on each other’s backs and hold each other’s wilting bodies upright.
The work finds new life in the 2020 documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, directed by Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz. It screens in Vermont International Film Foundation’s Virtual Cinema through September 30.
When codirector LeBlanc was 16, she tells us on-screen in the documentary, she saw D-Man performed. The experience inspired her to become a dancer — and to join Jones’ company. Now on the dance faculty at Loyola Marymount University in California, LeBlanc chronicles in the film a production of D-Man that she staged with her undergraduate students.
The documentary poses many questions: Can these young people, indeed, bring it? Even if they can master the physical challenges of D-Man — “probably the most grueling dance I have ever performed,” LeBlanc says — can they summon the emotions evoked by a cultural crisis that none of them lived through? Finally, can they do all this under the keen eye of Jones himself?
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Can You Bring It poses urgent questions about legacy, continuity and how much one generation can teach another. There’s irony in the coincidence that the documentary premiered during a new “plague,” one that has disrupted the lives of college students in unprecedented ways.
In scenes filmed well before the COVID-19 pandemic, LeBlanc struggles to convey to her students how AIDS affected her own generation. “What is our AIDS right now?” she asks, trying to help them find their emotional connection to the material.
Some of the students point to school shootings. Others identify a more diffuse malaise — their sense of being caught in social media echo chambers where clicking is the only form of action.
“What I hear is stasis. Getting stuck,” LeBlanc says. Can the students break through that stasis into the forms of joyful movement and intimate communication that D-Man requires?
The answer to that question — as well as those posed above — is “maybe.” Because the documentary’s focus is split between the modern-day student production and the early history of D-Man, it’s hard not to see the former as a shadow of the latter.
Even when the students do “bring it,” in a powerful rehearsal captured near the end of the film, they don’t achieve the heights of Jones’ company, which we see performing the same passages in archival clips. Interviews with company members who premiered the dance are wrenching, sweet and funny by turns. As they recall Zane’s deathbed and Acquavella’s nightclub antics, they bring to life a vibrant urban art scene that is lost to time. The students, who get less on-screen time, don’t assert their personalities with that kind of vividness.
Perhaps that can’t be helped, especially since no one upstages Jones himself. When he shows up, halfway through the film, to observe the students at rehearsal, he’s a magnetic, exacting presence. Praise doesn’t come easily from him, but he shares LeBlanc’s conviction that D-Man should be a living work rather than a relic.
In some of the doc’s most poignant passages, Jones meditates on what the work means now. In 1989, “It was a place to grieve,” he says. But he believes D-Man is more than “a response to the plague”; it’s an enduring statement about survival and community. “Is it a cautionary tale?” he asks of the work, which grew out of the company’s pursuit of catharsis through group improvisations. “Is it one of inspiration? I don’t know what it is.”
D-Man certainly is one thing: unforgettable. By showing us a new generation of dancers rising to the work’s challenge, Can You Bring It reminds us of everything we lost when theaters closed in 2020 — and everything we hope to regain as performing artists return to the stage.
If you like this, try…
“American Masters: Bill T. Jones: A Good Man” (2011; check your local library): This 90-minute episode of the PBS series follows Jones as he and his company create a piece in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial.
Pina (2011; AMC+, IFC Films Unlimited, Criterion Channel, rentable): Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) directed this spellbinding documentary about the work of German choreographer Pina Bausch.
How to Survive a Plague (2012; IFC Films Unlimited, AMC+, rentable): For the undergraduates in Can You Bring It, the AIDS crisis is distant history. This documentary about the rise of ACT UP and other activist groups brings it back with fearful immediacy. For a more recent, fictionalized take on the same subject, try the award-winning French drama BPM (Beats per Minute) (2017; Tubi, Kanopy, Criterion Channel).
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A Powerful Dance of Grief Finds New Life in Documentary ‘Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters’ | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days