‘It’s about a triumph in the face of struggle’: the enduring power of Bill T Jones’s Aids-era ballet

A new documentary looks at a contemporary restaging of D-Man in the Waters, a defining 1989 performance piece about defying a devastating epidemic

The movements in D-Man in the Waters are big and sweeping. In it, dancers run, slide or find other graceful ways to hurl themselves across the stage. The 1989 ballet produced by the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company during the height of the Aids crisis, and explored thoroughly in the documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T Jones and D-Man in the Waters, also includes feats that make you gasp, such as when a dancer runs up another’s hunched back, using it to launch themselves into the air like a stork, and trusting yet another dancer to catch and cradle them on their 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 from and in defiance of an epidemic that had a similarly tendency to disproportionally affect marginalized communities. The dancers are often wrapped around each other, providing support, embracing, united in a show of solidarity while something unspoken threatens to rip them apart.

“It is about a triumph in the face of struggle,” Can You Bring It’s co-director Rosalynde LeBlanc told the Guardian on a Zoom call alongside her collaborator, cinematographer and director, Tom Hurwitz. “And the triumph comes from not individual heroism. The triumph comes from linking with the people next to you.”

LeBlanc, a former Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company dancer, is currently an associate professor at Loyola Marymount University (LMU). She occasionally enlists Bill T Jones, a gay Black 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, we see LeBlanc and Jones in 2016, speaking to student dancers at LMU, who typically come from privileged backgrounds. They educate the students about the history informing the show and try to build a connection across generations and demographics, which is at the heart of the documentary. Can You Bring It is a dynamic portrait of the function art has in our lives and the transformative impact D-man in the Waters can have on dancers and audiences alike.

LeBlanc interviews original members of the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company who recall in vivid and heartfelt detail the devastating circumstances that inspired them to create an enduring and inspiring ballet. The Aids crisis, which landed in the 80s rife with stigma and enabled by systemic neglect, ripped through the arts community. The fear, loss, anger, shame and guilt at the time were overwhelming, as people were dying while also being blamed for bringing it upon themselves.

Dancers in the company recall the heavy losses among their social circles, one recounting that half her phone book had died. Arnie Zane, the company’s co-founder and Jones’s life partner at the time, was among them. The entire company surrounded Zane when he died in his apartment. The paramedics, who arrived on scene after, refused to touch Zane’s body. It fell on Jones and his fellow dancers to lift Zane up and place him in a body bag. In mourning, the company created D-Man in the Waters.

LeBlanc was compelled to create a film sharing that backstory when she noticed that her talented students could perform all the moves with technical precision, but their delivery was always falling short from the original performances she was so intimately familiar with. Removed from the context, the urgency was missing.

In a pivotal scene, we see Jones sitting in a chair surrounded by the gathered LMU students who are mostly white, female and socioeconomically privileged. Jones is a sophisticated voice whose piercing gaze feels, even through the camera, as though it’s reaching down into your soul. And during that conversation, he describes his grandmother’s experience during slavery, the survival instincts he gleaned from his lineage and the feelings of shame and doom that haunted him as a gay Black man surviving during the Aids epidemic.

Bill T. Jones in rehearsal doing Astaire steps with students Brandon and Nicole
Bill T Jones in rehearsal doing Astaire steps with students Brandon and Nicole. Photograph: Photo courtesy of Rosalynde LeBlanc

“He meets them in their humanity,” said Hurwitz. “He doesn’t consider them any less for their privilege, any less human than he is. And in that he presents a model for the development of a community.”

The students don’t just listen. LeBlanc pushes them further, leading workshops that encourage them to relate the experiences and emotions wrapped up in D-Man in the Waters to what’s happening in their own lives, or to their generation.

“The dance acts as this treasure chest,” said LeBlanc. “When it is cracked open, when you allow it to affect you, you are not looking back and you’re not looking forward, you’re looking around you.”

If it were performed today, D-Man in the Waters would easily connect to 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 office, not long after the Pulse Orlando nightclub shooting. In their search for an emotional connection between contemporary headlines and the circumstances that birthed the original show, the students discuss mass shootings as the modern plague affecting them; or at least, affecting victims who look like them.

LeBlanc points out that the only Black male in the class forges an even deeper connection to the material. In the film, the young dancer named Brandon calls out a key difference between how white and Black people experience gun violence. While white people are considered tragic victims. Black people are often blamed for their own victimhood, much in the same way that the gay community were made to feel shame and guilt for contracting Aids.

“He had counterfeit bills, he had a history of drug abuse, he punched a cop,” said LeBlanc, listing some of the excuses used to justify killing Black men, while reiterating the emotional stakes her student was finding in Bill T Jones’s story and the sweeping movements in D-Man in the Waters.

“This lone black male voice is the one that says, ‘wait a second, gun violence can also be a guilty disease for people like me.’”

  • Can You Bring It: Bill T Jones and D-Man in the Waters is out in US cinemas and virtual cinemas on 16 July with a UK date to be announced

Contributor

Radheyan Simonpillai

The GuardianTramp

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