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The Making of an AIDS-Inspired Dance Masterpiece


More than two decades later, a new film revisits the backstory of this famed dance with a millennial touch.

In 1989, the award-winning choreographer, artistic director, and dancer Bill T. Jones (pictured above) gifted the world with his explosive tour-de-force, “D-Man in the Waters,” an emotional dance performance and tribute to dancer Demian Acquavella and others who died from AIDS-related complications during the height of the epidemic. More than 25 years later,  the documentary D-Man gives audiences a chance to revisit the heartbreaking time that led Jones- — now 64 and living with HIV — to create his bittersweet celebration of life. 

The film's co-director/producer, Rosalynde LeBlanc, performed with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and teaches dance at Loyola Marymount University. She's looking to fans to help bring the heartfelt documentary to life. 

“The only obstacle to making this film is financial,” LeBlanc says. “Everyone who has seen the footage has rallied around it. It is a high caliber production. It is being made thoughtfully and well. People want to see this film get made. People need this film to get made.”

Although LeBlanc’s team has only reached the halfway mark in their goal to raise more than $500,000 for the production, filming has already begun. The documentary starts in a dance studio in 2015, where LeBlanc is teaching “D-Man in the Waters” to nine of her most skilled students from LMU. As the dancers are put through their paces, we understand their inquiries into the history of the dance. We see their difficulties, and later how their understanding deepens.

D-Man, LeBlanc says, is not “about” AIDS. “It was the glorious alchemy that resulted when a dance company committed to to putting one foot in front of the other while an epidemic raged in and around them. The virus hasn’t been eradicated — the face of AIDS has changed, and the location of the epidemic has…shifted, but it is still here.”

LeBlanc wanted to explore the tragic backstory that led Jones to create the dance. In doing so she uncovers the stories of risk, sacrifice, love, loss, and resurrection that were embedded in the choreography over two decades ago. In the film, Jones and seven of his former dancers recall reeling from the 1988 loss of co-director, Arnie Zane, to AIDS complications. Only weeks into rehearsals for their new dance called “Waters,” a beloved member of the company, Demian “D-Man” Acquavella, was also diagnosed with AIDS. 

Over the next six months, Jones created his seminal dance  even as Acquavella’s health deteriorated. What started as a lighthearted ballet about the movement of water transformed into a penetrating look at love and survival during a plague. Renamed, "D-Man in the Waters" in honor of Acquavela, the dance brought the audience inside the heartbreaking struggle of love and ultimate loss that the AIDS epidemic represents.

Jones, still an active choreographer, director, and dancer has earned numerous accolades, including Kennedy Center Honors, a MacArthur “Genius Grant," Tony Awards, and the National Medal of Arts. The National Young Arts Foundation honored him for having a “significant influence on the development of young American artists,” and that influence is reflected in the ages of those supporting the making of D-Man ( Perhaps that’s a reminder that those with the most to learn about the impact of the epidemic are those too young to have lived through it.  

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