Bill T. Jones Dancing Through Disease in Can You Bring It and Afterwardsness
A new documentary and dance together offer seemingly contradictory but ultimately profound lessons in moving through personal and societal grief.
Demian Acquavella was dying. In one of the most poignant moments of the new documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, Jones recounts carrying company dancer Acquavella, the titular “D-Man,” onto the Joyce Theater stage during D-Man in the Waters’ 1989 premiere. In a contemporary interview, Jones reflects that despite the disease destroying Acquavella’s once spritely body and mind, he had to be on stage. It was their Joyce premiere; you don’t let a friend miss their Joyce premiere.
The new documentary premiered at DOC NYC in November 2020, and will have its theatrical release next month, playing at Film Forum and in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee. The film explores the background, creation, and ongoing legacy of Bill T. Jones’s seminal dance created at the height of the AIDS epidemic and follows Rosalynde LeBlanc, former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company dancer and one of the film’s creators and directors, as she restages the work on her students at Loyola Marymount University. Can You Bring It is an intimate journey through loss and creation. The examination of the specific historical circumstances of D-Man’s birth alongside its ongoing life and evolution resonates with particular power now, as we deal with the ramifications of another era of intersecting health, social, and political crises.
Bill T. Jones’s latest dance Afterwardsness, performed at the Park Avenue Armory May 19–26, reflects upon the “twin pandemics” of COVID-19 and violence against Black people. The title is a semi–tongue-in-cheek reference to the desire for a post-pandemic, post-racist America, knowing that for those who have suffered at the hands of the two deadly forces, there will never be a clean “after.”
Stepping foot on the Armory grounds, one immediately senses the performance will not be a post-pandemic celebration. After winding through long hallways of temperature checks, vaccine card checks, and rapid COVID tests, audience members are seated in spaced-out rows of chairs to await a choreographed entrance into the massive “Drill Hall” performance space.
Tape partitions the gymnasium-like room, keeping the dancers at least six feet from each other and audience members as they hurdle, crawl, and stroll through the massive space. It’s thrilling to experience live performance again: the intricate, quintessentially Bill T. Jones blend of virtuosity and casualness on the tremendous-as-ever dancers, and the sometimes melodic, sometimes dissonant soundscape reverberating through the gargantuan hall. Nevertheless, with audience members separated from each other and the performers, absence defines the experience of Afterwardsness.
The obvious absence is the lack of touch between dancers. Perhaps even more profound is the distance between audience members. At most dance shows, one can expect to be wedged tightly in between friends if you came with them or strangers if not. In the Drill Hall, everyone is an island.
In Can You Bring It, on the other hand, we see the company dancing a section of D-Man in which performers tenderly carry, caress, and support one another. This choreography follows interviews in which original company members recall being present for Arnie Zane’s death, just three months before Acquavella’s. They gathered around his bed, Jones’s sisters sang, and they felt him slip away. When the ambulance drivers arrived, they refused to touch Zane’s body for fear of contracting AIDS. Jones and the dancers had to carry his body out and place it into the body bag themselves.
The tactile choreography physicalizes the way that dance has offered safety, visibility, and power to people so often denied basic dignity. The cinematography puts the viewer inside the movement. The camera travels within and amidst dancers in the flurries of runs and jumps, the intricacies of partnering, the momentum of group dynamics.
The ability to feel the swell and pulse of collective motion is remarkable when compared with the solitude and distance of Afterwardsness. In the waiting rooms, recordings of journal entries from pandemic days past and chants from Black Lives Matter protests echo, including the names of people killed by police. These voices are ghosts lurking in the antechambers, reminding us of how much has been lost.
In contrast, the film casts D-Man as a flotation device within the turbulent waters of disease; a way to safely enter into, and triumph over, the thing killing your loved ones. The sense one gets is that the power of D-Man in the Waters is in its fierce insistence on presence, on vitality in the face of hardship.
In a scene of the college students’ final dress rehearsal, LeBlanc tries to make them understand D-Man as more than the movements from which it is composed and the historical moment from which it came. “Why are we doing it? What are we desperate for? What is our AIDS right now?” she pleads. Then, desperately and through tears: “Do you understand what I’m saying? What’s happening right now that is going to make this piece more important than anything else you do?”
If Can You Bring It’s message is about D-Man’s universality and adaptability, Afterwardsness is about specifics. The dancers wear masks. Their costumes, a mismatch of sweatpants and tank tops, are a true “work from home” aesthetic. Where D-Man and Can You Bring It end with a bang (a dancer tossed high into the air), Afterwardsness ends with a fizzle, each dancer alone in space with a chair and a series of task-like movements that embody the cyclical, maddening, exhausting experience of observing avoidable death and violence while mandated to stay at home. At one point, company dancer Vinson Fraley, Jr. plaintively sings “Another man done gone … I didn’t know his name … They killed another man,” as Chanel Howard and Nayaa Opong march a funereal procession around the entire yawning hall, and the other dancers writhe on the ground and eventually lie still, corpse-like.
Despite the film and the dance painting such different pictures of Bill T. Jones as he makes dances through disease and disaster, there is ultimately no contradiction. One leaves both Can You Bring It and Afterwardsness with the same knowledge: some of us will live; some won’t. Some of us will “move on”; some won’t. What is there to do other than dance until we are betrayed, whether by our own country or our own bodies? What is there to do besides gather in movement while we still can?