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Artists at Work 

Can You Bring It finds emotion in bringing art to very personal life.

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click to enlarge KINO LORBER FILMS
  • Kino Lorber Films
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What is it that makes a work of art transcendent, rather than merely a period piece? Every act of creation—every painting, every novel, every musical composition, every movie, every video game—emerges from a specific time and place, informed by the experience of the creator(s), their technical and financial limitations, and so on. So what takes such a work to a place where, years or decades or centuries later, it can still feel vital to those who experience it?

It may seem hyperbolic to suggest that a single documentary is up to answering that question, but Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters winds up startlingly moving by virtue of even trying. In their collaboration exploring the history and modern presentation of a single creative work, co-directors Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz craft one of the most fascinating cinematic studies of why some things might endure, and how much work it takes to ensure that they do.

The foundation of the film is a modern dance piece, D-Man in the Waters, originally choreographed in 1989 by New York-based Bill T. Jones and staged by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. And the reason Arnie Zane wasn't involved in its creation is built into the work itself: It was inspired by the AIDS crisis that had just taken the life of Zane, Jones' professional and personal partner, and had left one of the company's dancers, Demian "D-Man" Acquavella, also terminally ill. Throughout the film, surviving members of the company talk about what it was like to be an artist in New York at that terrifying, tragic time, and about the collaborative, often improvisational process through which D-Man was created as a response to these very personal losses.

The historical part, however, isn't actually at the center of Can You Bring It. Instead, the focus is on a production of D-Man in the Waters at California's Loyola Marymount University, with Jones/Zane company alum Rosalynde LeBlanc serving as director. Over the course of several weeks, we watch LeBlanc work with her young students, including bringing Jones himself to see the work in progress and offer his insights. Those scenes are fascinating both because of the way Jones responds to LeBlanc's unconventional casting choices, and because of the way it feels almost cruel to such relatively inexperienced performers. It's like watching a youth orchestra have to deal with Mozart coming in to tell them, "Maybe you should do it this way."

Can You Bring It really hits its emotional center, though, as LeBlanc works with her cast to help them find their way into the work on a personal level, beyond the technical needs of learning the sequence of steps, leaps and movements. As the students reveal in their comments, they're too far removed from AIDS as young people in the 2010s; it's barely a consideration in their lives. But there are other political and social developments in their world that do frighten them, and give them a sense for when the power of community is needed to stave off despair. D-Man in the Waters, they discover, isn't a dance about AIDS in 1980s New York City. Both physically and thematically, it's about people supporting one another, refusing to allow one another to be in deep water alone, and it's enough to put a lump in your throat when these kids look—really look—at one another, and can't help themselves from bursting into tears.

Dance is such an ephemeral art form that it might have been enough to capture the landmark work itself for posterity, as co-director/cinematographer Hurwitz does when he weaves his camera through a staging of D-Man by current members of the Jones/Zane company. But as would be true with a production of a theatrical play, that wouldn't be capturing the work. D-Man in the Waters exists not as a series of movements, just like a Mozart symphony exists not as notes on paper, but only when individual artists are connecting with it and bringing it to life on a stage. Can You Bring It is about the process that allows works like this to live, showing that the real glory of art is its ability to connect us in ways even the creator might never have imagined.

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