Choreographer Bill T. Jones is a true American master—the winner of two Tony Awards for his choreography on Broadway, and the recipient of a 1994 MacArthur Genius Award and a 2010 Kennedy Center Award. He is also an inspiration for people living with HIV as an openly gay Black man who has been living, and thriving, with HIV for decades.
A deeply moving new documentary, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, examines a watershed moment in Jones’ life and career. In 1988, he lost his partner, Arnie Zane, to AIDS as the entire New York City arts world was reeling from that devastating health crisis.
The film chronicles the creation of his seminal 1989 work, D-Man in the Waters, a piece for nine dancers created in response to the AIDS crisis and Zane’s death. Set to Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E, the work went on to win a prestigious Bessie Award for choreographic excellence, and has been performed by two dozen companies and universities across the country. A second, parallel narrative in the documentary follows a group of young college dancers learning the work in present-day Los Angeles. Can You Bring It screens during the month of August as part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Virtual Cinema Series at mfah.org/films.
A couple for 18 years, Jones and Zane founded two dance ensembles, including the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982, which achieved renown as a postmodern dance troupe in the 1980s. Jones was a towering figure with electric magnetism who easily commanded the stage, while Zane was small and wiry—a choreographer and dancer with his own compelling charisma. They frequently performed together, and sparks flew.
“Arnie and I were a couple,” Jones explains in the film. “We were a continent of two: wife/husband, business partners, on the great adventure.”
In a 1987 report on the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Zane came out as an artist living with AIDS in an era when many public figures living with HIV fought to keep that information private.
His death at the age of 39 was a devastating blow for Jones, and it presented an existential crisis for their dance company. Could Jones continue to create new work and sustain the company? At one point during the late 1980s, when so many around him were dying, Jones questioned if he himself would make it through the company’s next season of performances at the fabled Joyce Theater.
“We were very abandoned, lost, and afraid,” observes Jones in the film. “We were hurting. But work was a way to keep going. It was a place to grieve.”
Jones created D-Man in the Waters in response to the trauma of Zane’s death, just as the company was losing another dancer to HIV: Demian Acquavella, whose nickname in the troupe was D-Man. But far from being a somber dirge, the ballet is a joyous explosion of energy. Under the headline “Athletic Rapture in Quirky Metaphorical Waters,” New York Times Chief Dance Critic Anna Kisselgoff praised the work at its premiere as “the kind of piece that sets audiences cheering.” D-Man’s vibrant beauty and kinetic power are exquisitely captured in the documentary, thanks to the cinematography of the film’s co-director, Tom Hurwitz.
Three decades after its premiere, D-Man has lost none of its visceral, emotional impact. This becomes clear in another narrative strand of the film focusing on a group of young dancers at Loyola Marymount University as they set out to learn the work. The piece is staged by Rosalynde LeBlanc, a charismatic former dancer who performed D-Man with the Jones/Zane company in the 1990s. (She also serves as co-director and a co-producer of the documentary.)
“I became a dancer because I saw D-Man in the Waters when I was 16 years old,” LeBlanc recalls. “It is the most grueling dance I have ever performed. But it is probably the most exhilarating.”
In teaching the work, we see LeBlanc struggling to convey the enormity of the AIDS crisis to a group of mostly teenage dancers who have no memory of the devastation wrought by HIV in the 1980s.
To truly bring the work to life, the budding young artists must somehow recreate the fierce sense of emotional urgency that gripped the dancers of the Jones/Zane company three decades earlier. “What is our AIDS now?” LeBlanc asks the dancers. “What is going to make this piece more important than anything you do?”
Can You Bring It bears vivid witness to the transformative power of art in times of social crisis.
What: MFAH streams Can You Bring It
When: through August