By Kristin Agostoni, Assistant Director of Communications and Media Relations, Loyola Marymount University
Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo was 19 when she joined a New York City dance company struggling to cope with the loss of several members, as well as its co-director, to AIDS.
It was 1993, and LeBlanc Loo had been cast in the dance, “D-Man in the Waters” – a powerful tribute to a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company who had died from the disease. As a newcomer surrounded by veterans on stage, “my job was just to keep up,” LeBlanc Loo recalled of the dance that touched upon themes of solidarity and strength during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 90s. “D-Man was really a force.”
Now years later, that dance remains a strong force for LeBlanc Loo as she teaches students at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles. As an assistant professor of dance in the College of Communication and Fine Arts, she plans to re-stage a section of “D-Man in the Waters” on campus next year, thanks to a new partnership between LMU and the renowned Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co.
The multi-cultural company founded in 1982 by Jones and his late partner Zane is known for foreshadowing issues of identity, form and social commentary through modern dance. Jones has received major honors for his work as a dancer, choreographer, writer and theater director, including the 1994 MacArthur "Genius" Award and 2010 Kennedy Center Honors.
His company’s pact with LMU allows for a wide range of cross-pollination between the two organizations, providing new opportunities for students that encourage learning and engagement with professionals.
The agreement also allows the university to license and perform two company works over the next four years, and gives LeBlanc Loo, who danced with Bill T. Jones from 1993-99, the opportunity to teach portions of company repertory within her courses. This fall, LMU hosted its first weeklong session in technique for students, led by a Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane associate artistic director along, with a performer.
“This partnership represents an incredible opportunity for the students in our dance program, and is a testament to the quality and character of the education we offer,” said Bryant Keith Alexander, dean of LMU's College of Communication and Fine Arts, when the agreement was announced in the spring. “We are honored and humbled to be joining the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in this endeavor.”
LeBlanc Loo believes the partnership will help bridge the gap between professional dancers and students by encouraging increased interactions on campus and in New York, where LMU students will be offered scholarships and discounted rates to attend company workshops and classes.
“I feel like this is one of the most cutting-edge things to be happening within a dance department right now,” she said.
And the agreement – particularly the teaching of “D-Man” – underscores the Jesuit university’s commitment to educating the whole person and encouraging the pursuit of social justice, LeBlanc Loo noted.
Although LeBlanc Loo did not know Demian “D-Man” Acquavella – he died in 1990 at 32 – she performed in the dance with many of his close friends and colleagues. She can recall their feelings of despondency, as well as the energy and solidarity that defined the era.
“I feel that 'D-Man in the Waters' has the potential to teach a very important aspect of public scourge,” LeBlanc Loo said. “What ‘D-Man’ does is bring a group of people together for a common goal. It’s about helping that person who is falling.”
LeBlanc Loo has re-staged the dance at several other college campuses and knows that students can pick up the steps and learn the movements fairly quickly. But what she found along the way is that they didn’t understand what it was like to live through the AIDS epidemic.
For that reason, she is working on a documentary that tells the stories of risk and sacrifice, love, loss and resurrection that were embedded in the choreography of the dance created by Bill T. Jones roughly 27 years ago. A recipient of the Graves Award in the Humanities, LeBlanc Loo is completing research on the dance that includes interviews with the original 1989 cast members who rallied around Acquavella.
Considering that LeBlanc Loo first saw the dance as a high school student, performed it as a professional dancer and will soon have the opportunity to teach the choreography to her LMU students, she has come full circle. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When I think about the education of the whole person, the body has to be included in that,” she said. “Dance in that context is an archive. ‘D-Man in the Waters’ has archived the spirit of a particular time.”