One of the most gifted and culturally influential longtime survivors of HIV/AIDS is the gay Black choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, 68. Jones catapulted to pre-AIDS dance-world prominence with his dance partner and lover, Arnie Zane, but then powered on with the dance company alone after Zane’s 1988 death from AIDS—and only then created the company’s most iconic pieces. And all that was before gaining even more mainstream fame by winning the 2007 Tony Award for his decidedly un-Broadway-like choreography for Spring Awakening.
Without a doubt, Jones’ single most famous piece is 1989’s D-Man in the Waters, which he created with the other surviving members of his troupe a year after Zane died—and while the beloved troupe member for whom the piece was named, Demian Acquavella, was himself gravely ill from AIDS. (He died the following year.) In four parts, the piece is an exhilarating, athletic, physically and emotionally exhausting exploration of the cycles of life and death, joy and grief, connection and loss.
In the number, dancers hold or lift one another up, again and again, as a constant motif. In fact, a teenage dancer with the company in the mid-’90s, Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo, had no idea that the piece—and her near-decade with the company—would affect her so much that she would go on to make an entire documentary about Jones, told through the framing lens of D-Man.
But guess what? That’s exactly what she did, working with seasoned documentary filmmaker Tom Hurwitz. Not only does Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters use copious footage and interviews with the many surviving members of the company to tell the story of the piece’s making, it also tells the story of LeBlanc Loo recreating the frenetic Part I of the piece with her own young dance students at Loyola Marymount University, where she is a professor, in Los Angeles in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. Jones is often right there in the studio with them, both guiding and putting the piece in its historical context. Much of the film is buoyed by Mendelssohn’s gorgeous Octet for Strings, which in fact is the score for D-Man itself.
The result is not only a fascinatingly up-close look at how a dance piece is made (or re-made), it’s a surprisingly emotional look at how a piece forged amid the pain of one era can speak to later eras. TheBody spoke to LeBlanc Loo about the film, which is viewable for a $12 ticket online Nov. 11 to 19 as part of the DOC NYC film festival.
Tim Murphy: Hi there, Rosalynde, thank you so much for talking with us. So first, tell us how and why this film was made, because it’s very unusual for a dancer like you to become both the codirector and lead producer of a documentary.
Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo: Well, in 2012, I’d actually just gotten a job at Loyola Marymount, but for about five years prior, I’d been restaging the first part of D-Man at colleges around the country. And during the fourth such restaging, I was in a Minnesota hotel room trying to figure out how to unlock this dance that wasn’t coming alive. I’d restaged other pieces of Bill’s and that wasn’t the case; once you had the costumes and the music and the movement, the piece materialized. But D-Man was elusive and I wondered what we were missing. Its spirit wasn’t coming alive.
So I figured that it was that young dancers probably didn’t know its history—didn’t know much about AIDS, because even though Bill says it’s not about AIDS, it was made during the AIDS crisis, which was such a complex time. And young people didn’t live through that, so they’d latch quickly onto the piece’s running and jumping and say, “Oh, this is so fun,” but they didn’t know it was made at a time of loss and despair, when Bill was grieving. And also during a surge of activism and protest. They had to understand that twisted dynamic, that rhythm inside D-Man.
So I was just going to make this tricked-out PowerPoint to teach them that, and so I interviewed the original dancers. And one of them said, “This really should be a film,” and I was like, “Hmmmm.” So I pitched it to producers, but to oversimplify everything, I never found one. But my brother, who works in film, said to me, “Why don’t you just get a really expert cameraperson to shoot the interviews, then at least you have that?” So I reached out to Tom Hurwitz, who had shot [another very famous Jones piece] “Still/Here” in 1995 when I was a dancer with the company. In the ensuing years, I had seen Tom’s name on nearly every documentary.
And so Tom came on board and convinced me to do a full doc. It was my job to raise the money. It’s been brutal, but I secured funding from LMU and also from a woman, Karen Dial, who fell in love with the project early on and has been a support all the way through. Otherwise, we’ve crowdfunded, and the dance community has supported this film dollar by dollar. And eventually I got grants from the Mellon and Ford Foundations, the grants for which I wrote with the second producer, Duana Butler. I’ve been working on this film for eight years.
Murphy: Wow. And to go back to your original point about young people not understanding the context of the film, I want to go right to what I found to be the most shocking and moving moment, which is when you are trying to get your students to find the meaning, the emotion, at the center of the piece, and you suddenly break down crying and you ask them, “What is our AIDS right now? What is happening?” And your students are quite shocked as well. I want to ask you what was going through your head at that moment.
LeBlanc Loo: I was frustrated with them—with their silence and inability to go deep. It was the Saturday before the election in 2016, and I was thinking, “Do these students realize that we are on the cusp of electing a dictator and that is going to change everything, do irreparable damage?”
Murphy: That is so interesting, because I looked up online when the LMU performance took place and found that it was mid-November 2016, and I figured that the rehearsal where you broke down was right around the election. Why did you not share that with them?
LeBlanc Loo: I’ve learned over many years as a teacher that students have to come to their own conclusions. It’s their journey, and I can only crack open the path for them to figure that out. In retrospect, their silence in that moment ... it wasn’t that they weren’t giving me an answer. Their silence was the answer. I realized that this was a generation of kids who grew up with mass violence, school shootings. And they also grew up with iPhones and surveillance, so they’re totally immobilized. If they’re at a party, they’re inhibited, because people could post it at any moment. They’re trapped, afraid to speak up, to be wrong.
Murphy: That’s interesting. I also couldn’t help noticing that most of the dancers, although very sweet and sensitive, were privileged young white women, and I wondered if it was fair or understandable to ask them to intuit the pain and struggle the piece had been made out of if they hadn’t experienced struggles on the scale of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.
LeBlanc Loo: That’s a good question. And perhaps it wasn’t. I worked at a previous school with a very different demographic, kids who really struggled to get to college, the first in their family. They had a grit to their creativity, a fighting spirit. When I first got to LMU, I would think, “They don’t need me as much as the other kids did.” But then I realized that in fact they were the people who did need me. There was a different deprivation there—not about money or access, but—I’m generalizing—a spiritual deprivation.
Murphy: Not really being connected to the rest of the world and other people’s struggles?
LeBlanc Loo: Yes, and the creativity that is born from not having things.
Murphy: Wow. OK, so in the film, you say that seeing D-Man in 1989 when you were only 16 was what made you want to be a dancer, and that you actually went to Bill and asked to join the company. Tell me about that.
LeBlanc Loo: Yes, I grew up in Baltimore and saw the piece at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina. Then, when I was a student at SUNY Purchase in upstate New York, I went to Bill’s workshop in 1992 and said to him a year later, “I want to work with you when I’m out of school in two years.” And he said, “If you’re serious, let’s start now, because I don’t know where I’ll be in two years.” Because he was HIV positive himself [at a time of no effective treatment].
Those words hit me so hard. I understood what he meant. I had dance teachers who you would not see for a few months and they’d suddenly show up weighing 90 pounds, wearing a baseball cap to cover their KS lesions. One of my professors at SUNY actually advised me not to go to Bill’s company; they said that Arnie had just died and Bill would probably die soon, so why invest so much time and energy in a company that was probably going to dissolve soon?
But I went—and the next summer, he said, “I want to duet with you.” So that’s how I got into the company. I would literally leave school and go fly wherever the company was performing and do the duet with him, then go back to school.
Murphy: Wow—that is quite an experience for a young dancer. How would you describe Bill—his essence?
LeBlanc Loo: I know the answer to that only because I wrote him a letter in 1999 telling him I was leaving the company. I’ve been fortunate in my career since then, but at that time, I didn’t appreciate where I was because I’d come in so young. Meanwhile, my friends were working restaurants at night, finally getting a gig, which would end. So I kind of regret leaving, but I wanted to move on, explore.
So in this letter, I told him that when we were onstage together, he had a tenderness that he rarely showed when not onstage. That’s his essence. If he were sitting here, he’d disagree with me, which is fine, but his life events have layered all kinds of stuff on him. When you talk to him, you feel the son of sharecroppers, the man who pretty much self-educated, who lost Arnie and so many people, who rebuilt his life and became a self-made entrepreneur. You feel all that, but when you’re dancing with him, you feel only softness and gentility and being cared for. Even though he is not what some in the field would call a 'reliable performer,' which just means that he does not always perform the choreography exactly as it is written.
Murphy: Can I ask you, what was it like being one of the women in a world where so many of the men were sick, dying, or losing friends and lovers?
LeBlanc Loo: At the time, I was dating both women and men. I didn’t feel safe [from AIDS myself]. I felt a level of anxiety about sex that was really debilitating and affected the rest of my life. I think part of my making a film is trying to come to terms with the ways that growing up in the shadow of HIV affected my sexual awakening and wholeness. I felt really terrified by it, even though, now that I think about it, I wasn’t in a high-risk group necessarily.
Murphy: Hm, interesting. And in 1995, you were in “Still/Here,” which at the time became one of the most talked-about and controversial things in the cultural world after the New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce notoriously wrote that she would not review it because—in that it included people like Bill living with HIV and with other chronic illnesses—it was “victim art,” and hence put itself above aesthetic criticism. That was a huge moment.
LeBlanc Loo: For us in the company, it was like, only no press is bad press. We didn’t carry the weight of that piece the way Bill did. He had to answer to that “victim art” label. But for us, it was a peak time for the company. I think [troupe member] Larry Goldhuber calculated that we were on tour 280 days of the year. And in post-performance discussions, the article always came up, but people would say, “What a crazy lady—the season’s amazing and there are no victims on this stage.” So that overwhelming ovation blocked out the negativity of the article. I didn’t even realize its impact until I went to grad school and read all the rebuttals to the article.
Murphy: So, how is Bill, whom I’ve had the honor of interviewing a few times, and what was his reaction to the film, which he is heavily featured in?
LeBlanc Loo: He’s doing great. I saw him two weeks ago when we did the post-screening Q&A for DOC NYC. He’s still making work, even in these quarantine times. As for the film, he loved it, but he’s got a critical eye—in a good way. He didn’t just say, “Wow, that’s wonderful, I love that.” I was shaking in my shoes. Then gradually over dinner after, he said, “It’s not the film I would make, but it’s very good.” He said, “You are putting D-Man in a context that is more about AIDS than it is.”
Murphy: Hm, that’s really interesting. Creators often don’t want to admit or can’t see that a piece is very clearly about what others see it as being about. What is the piece about to you?
LeBlanc Loo: Well, I’m very conscientiously saying that this is my opinion, not his, but—I think it’s about AIDS.
When I think back to New York City at that time, the way I felt in my body was this confluence of two completely opposite dynamics, this desperate vitality and also this utter despair and decimation—the two opposing forces scraping away at each other, creating this intense friction. Bill only licenses out Part 1 of the piece—only the company does the other three sections. So without all the parts, the full journey is missing, and the full journey is what feels like AIDS to me. You start without any preconceived notion, then you end up literally caring for each other’s bodies, because it’s a dangerous piece. There are duets of heartbreaking sentiment, but at other times, it’s going so fast and you’re coughing up a lung.
And it’s also ego-less. It’s the only piece I’ve ever performed where I am too tired to have any kind of care in the world about how I look and the beauty of my dancing. And that reminds me of what it felt like to be in New York City in the late ’80s and early ’90s.