When it premiered in 1989, “D-Man in the Waters” was hailed as “dance of the moment,” a symbolic, energetic and balletic piece that “radiates life in the face of tragedy.”
The co-founder of the Jones-Zane Company that created it had died of AIDS. When he passed away, the paramedics that came to pick up his body refused to touch the corpse. One of the stars of that company, the “D-Man” of the title, was about to succumb to AIDS, yet made an brief appearance onstage in that premiere performance.
Can a work so much of its time, “dance of the moment,” live on, stay relevant and inspire young dancers and new audiences decades later?
That’s not questioned in the documentary, “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones & D-Man in the Waters.” The piece endures and the film, shot before another pandemic tore through America, is largely set within the context of a new production of the piece mounted by Loyola Marymount University, directed by a veteran of that Jones-Zane ensemble.
But this sometimes emotional film shows us the struggle of Bill T. Jones and new production choreographer (and co-director of this film) Rosalynde LeBlanc to convey the symbolism and stakes to dancers too young to remember AIDS and all it did to dance, America and American culture.
LeBlanc and co-director Tom Hurwitz get Jones and veterans of his company to remember the crucible the show was created in, finished off as they all witnessed the wasting death of Jones’ “wife, husband” and business partner, half of a couple he describes as “a continent of two.”
“Cathartic” rehearsals altered the choreography of the show and gave it the emotional punch that made it a distinct live dance experience.
LeBlanc, leading Loyala Marymount students in rehearsals, stops to question the ensemble about what they’ve been told about AIDS in school, by parents, friends and relatives. Then she asks them about what crises they feel the show might relate to today — rampant gun violence, etc. — all in an effort to raise the emotional stakes in their performances.
Jones sits in on some of the rehearsals, instructing, encouraging, coaxing — “Don’t think ‘decorative.’ You’re an ATHLETE!”
It’s an intimate film that breaks down sequences of the dance as they’re slowly walked through and then assembled. If the movie lacks something, it’s the outside voices — academics, contemporaries in dance, critics — placing this work within dance history, verifying its importance and significance.
Still, “Can You You Bring It” is a fascinating history lesson, especially to generations that didn’t grow up under the AIDS specter, when sexuality and dating had dire consequences and when the big city worlds of dance, theater and the arts were decimated, almost overnight.
One dancer recalls that “half my phone book” of colleagues and collaborators “had died” before treatments arrived to stem the tide.
Up until then, and all through rehearsals and that premiere production of “D-Man in the Waters,” dancers were struggling to stay afloat, to carry on as almost everyone they knew went under.
MPA Rating: unrated
Cast: Bill T. Jones, Rosalynde LeBlanc, Janet Lilly, Arthur Aviles, Heidi Lasky, Laurence Goldhuber
Credits: Directed by Tom Hurwitz, Rosalynde LeBlanc. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:34