If he hadn’t become one of the great modern dance choreographers of the last fifty years, Bill T. Jones could have been a poet. As his often transcendent work makes abundantly clear, the best dance is poetry in motion, its highest aspiration as an art form to use the body to express what language cannot. Still, as evidenced by a rather remarkable speech used to open “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters,” a moving new documentary about one of his most enduring works, Jones could dance with his words, too.
“We are as good as our last performance,” he says in an acceptance speech at the 1989 Bessie Awards, less than a year after his partner Arnie Zane had surrendered to complications from AIDS. “We are all going to die. I am a Black man. I obsess. My mother lives alone. Arnie is dead. The company is with me. I am scared.”
Someone in the crowd shouts something incoherent, words of support no doubt, and the arresting tension is pierced with applause. It’s a strong opening that sets a high bar for what’s to follow, and though the film itself can’t fully live up to the frisson of that moment, it captures the emotionality of dance as well as any film could, even finding a few electric moments that reach out and grab the heart.
Not the first documentary about the modern dance legend, “Can You Bring It” charts the development of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company and their 17-year romantic and working partnership through the lens of his first solo work following Zane’s death, “D-Man in the Waters.”
Debuting in 1989, the piece was named for company member Demian Acquavella, described by his friends as a gender-playful Adonis with unconventional technique. Known as D-Man, he died in June of 1990, though not before gracing the Joyce Theater stage one last time, for “D-Man”‘s debut performance. As Jones and the other original dancers narrate the night over grainy footage, Jones can be seen carrying an exultant Demian, both dancers wearing white shroud-like skirts. It’s an extraordinary moment, at once fleeting and enduring, resurrected by such a tender retelling.
In notes accompanying the film, Jones asserts: “This work is not about anybody’s epidemic,” and praises filmmakers Tom Hurwitz and Rosalynde LeBlanc for “telescoping the story…into the future.” He is referring to the contemporaneous footage that occupies half the film, in which LeBlanc auditions and rehearses a plucky group of college dance students through the grueling choreography of “D-Man in the Waters.”
While the relatively minor drama of casting and shaking college kids out of their apathy drags the otherwise kinetic film down a bit, it illustrates “D-Man”‘s universal resonance, which is clearly important to Jones. In workshops with the students, Jones is generous but demanding, and it’s a unique pleasure to watch a master teach. Still, it feels a like extra padding and lacks the urgency that animates the rest of the film.
“Can You Bring It” is most compelling as an archival work. An early section pairs the original dancers’ memories of the piece’s development with visuals of the corresponding movement, sharply telegraphing the viewer into the creative process. 1980s performance footage being what it is, Hurwitz and LeBlanc use higher quality tape of a contemporary professional company performing the piece. No doubt a necessary visual tool, that these dancers remain nameless while the college students get so much airtime feels like a letdown.
The film features a few enticing collages of New York gay life in the ’70s, many of the photos taken by Arnie Zane himself. The section about Demian is filled with whimsical photos, his exuberant personality jumping off the screen. It’s in these fond remembrances that “Can You Bring It” really alights, whether in firsthand accounts of the epidemic or the dance, it’s all fascinating, moving, and precious to behold. Many films have tried to capture the feeling of living through the AIDS epidemic, some more successful than others. While Jones (as is his right as an artist) seems determined to recast “D-Man” as an amorphous meditation on grief in many forms, the specificity of the piece is undeniable — and what makes it so enduring. “D-Man” speaks for itself, and it’s poetry in motion.
A Kino Lorber release, “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters” is now in theaters and in virtual cinemas.