LMU and Bill T. Jones continue the evolving legacy of a masterpiece

By Christina Campodonico

Bill T. Jones guides student dancers Brandon Mathis and Nicole Closson during a rehearsal in March Image Ccurtesy of Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo

Bill T. Jones guides student dancers Brandon Mathis and Nicole Closson during a rehearsal in March
Image Ccurtesy of Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo

Bill T. Jones’ “D-Man in the Waters” is not a dance for the faint of heart.

Those brave enough to attempt it must be willing to launch themselves into the air, dive onto the floor and free-fall into each other’s arms.

Trust is key, says Hailey Loeffler, a Loyola Marymount University dance major. She’ll be performing in the LMU Dance Department’s presentations of the work on Nov. 16, 17, 18 and 19 in the campus’ Strub Theatre.

“You have to learn to trust your partners. Whether you’re being tossed in the air, whether you’re jumping into someone’s arms or falling back in them, you have to trust them,” says Loeffler, 20.

“One of the most challenging things about learning the piece is the amount of stamina,” adds student dancer Brandon Mathis, 21. “It’s continuous dancing; you don’t stop.”

The dance has a heavy history, too. Premiering in 1989 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, “D-Man” was choreographed in the wake of the AIDS-related death of Jones’ partner Arnie Zane and while one of Jones’ own company members, Demian “D-Man” Acquavella, was battling the disease.

Acquavella died a year later, but Jones never replaced him in the dance, creating noticeable absences and asymmetrical groupings in the piece that came to define the landmark work of American postmodern dance.

Some of the work’s most recognizable movements are based on “actual gestures that have been taken from the daily struggle of living with this disease,” says LMU Assistant Professor of Dance Rosalynde (Roz) LeBlanc Loo. She danced in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company from 1993 to 1999 and, as part of a new partnership between LMU and Jones’ company, is staging the first movement of “D-Man” with student performers.

“Where the dancers lift up their arm and look beneath and put their fingers on the inside of their bicep, that was the place of the first lesion that Demian Acquavella got. … And then another is called ‘pinky to wrist.’ It was the location of the I.V., where they continually stuck Arnie Zane,” explains LeBlanc Loo.

“Just the act of doing those gestures, you are really invoking this experience of these people living with AIDS, or dying of AIDS,” she continues.

At the same time, LeBlanc Loo acknowledges that Jones, who is HIV-positive, has insisted that the dance is not about AIDS.

“I’ve never made work specifically about AIDS. I’ve made work about loss, about sex, about death — but never specifically about AIDS,” Jones told writer David Gere.

Because of this fraught legacy, a cohesive bond has to form between not only the performers but also the past and the present. As a regular repetiteur of “D-Man,” LeBlanc Loo has had to grapple with the dance’s choreographic complexity and history each time she teaches it to a new crop of dancers.

“I continually ran up against the same challenge. … We were in this place where the piece would be ‘stage ready,’ and yet it did not feel like the ‘D-Man’ I had watched, that I had been in,” says LeBlanc Loo.

To educate young dancers about the work, she decided to create a documentary about “D-Man” and the process of staging it on LMU students.

Cameras were rolling in March when Jones himself visited to sit in on rehearsal. He not only coached the dancers on the piece’s finer points — “Virtuosity is max speed with max relaxation,” the 64-year-old advised one student — but also turned the tables, asking students what “D-Man” means to them today.

“What is ‘D-Man?’ Is it alive now? Is it cautionary? Is it inspirational?” he asked. “What do you share that is so big and tragic to give it body? Is it about ISIS? Race on campus? Income equality? Black Lives Matter? What is it about?”

Similarly, LeBlanc Loo observes that even as she attempts to maintain the dance, it’s almost impossible to halt the shifting understandings of it.

“Dance is a living, breathing thing and it’s ever-changing. The ‘D-Man in the Waters’ that people saw 10 years ago is not going to be the ‘D-Man in the Waters’ they see in 2016,” she says.

For Jones, knowing that his dance is being passed on to a new generation is ultimately miraculous.

“It means that one can have an idea that’s bigger than one’s self. One can overcome gravity, the gravity of social convention and even life,” he says.

LMU presents “D-Man in the Waters” in “An Evening of Concert Dance,” happening at 8 p.m. on Nov. 16, 17, 18 and 19 at the Strub Theatre, LMU campus, Westchester. $15. Visit cfa.lmu.edu/programs/dance. A version of this story first appeared in The Argonaut’s Fall Arts Preview Issue.