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Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo Brings the Work of Bill T. Jones to Loyola Marymount University

LMU Dance students improvise behind their teacher. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

On a Friday afternoon in May, Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo rehearses Loyola Marymount University junior Tina Dossa in one of the dynamic, sink-or-swim sequences of Bill T. Jones' D-Man in the Waters. Explaining the use of weight and gravity, LeBlanc Loo coaches her student to “get heavy and low into the floor and find the rebound out of it." She exhorts Dossa to experience the resistance and “feel the arms cutting through water" and to change up the phrasing to give some steps more value. Perhaps most important, she reminds her student to “think of this as a task and not choreography."

From 1993 to 1999, LeBlanc Loo danced in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. Known for her gutsy moves and dramatic presence, she now passes on her wealth of experience as an assistant professor of dance at LMU in the Westchester suburb of Los Angeles. In March 2015, the university announced the launch of an educational partnership with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company that would bring the choreographer's works, philosophy and mentorship to a West Coast university for the first time. “I'm thrilled, honored and moved to start this partnership with LMU and couldn't be more pleased to have Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo at the helm," says Jones.

Rehearsal for Bill T. Jones' D-Man in the Waters: Part 1 with (from left) Darren Maser-Katter, Tina Rossa and Brandon Mathis (below).

LeBlanc Loo has been setting Jones' works around the country since 2005, including Spent Days Out Yonder at LMU in 2012.

In her mind, two areas of Jones' legacy seemed well-designed for the dance program. "LMU has a tradition of social justice," she says. "One of the things I feel is important for the student body here is to understand what dance can do." The overwhelming presence of dance in the commercial and entertainment industries in Los Angeles has led many new undergraduates to think of dance as defined by Beyoncé in a music video.

“There is this big separation in the students' minds: Dance is entertainment—and then there are all these causes," she says. “They go to soup kitchens, put in hours of community service, but the two don't come together." So when Jones arrives and talks about the issues around Black Lives Matter, for example, and the use of ideas as a launching pad for choreography, she says, “I think it's a kind of transformative moment for them."

But it's also the urgent tone in Jones' works that she feels is so valuable to today's tech-mesmerized students. “In general, with this generation of students, partly because of the internet and partly because things come to them so easily, you really feel a complacency with them," she explains. “Learning Bill's work, you have to get there with a purpose, with an energy; you have to care. You can't click on this tomorrow."

Historic Resonance

The partnership stipulates that LMU will license two pieces over four years, including Part 1 of D-Man in the Waters (to be performed at LMU in November) and a 2018 reconstruction of Love Re-Defined (1996). The agreement also includes an annual one-week intensive in technique, repertory or composition at LMU led by a current Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company dancer and two weeklong summer workshops led by company members at the university.

LeBlanc Loo first saw D-Man in the Waters at American Dance Festival. She was 16 and had never experienced Jones' work. “Gobsmacked" is how she describes her reaction. “I felt an energy from that stage that I can only explain as solidarity." The intensity of the piece reflects the life-or-death urgency that hovered over New York City during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Arnie Zane had died from the disease in 1988. Jones renamed the piece, originally Waters, to D-Man in the Waters for Demien “D-Man" Acquavella, who was in the original cast, although too weakened by AIDS to dance it.

Getting young students—there are six women and three men in the LMU cast—to understand the context and physicality of D-Man has been challenging. “It's so important to understand why this dance was made, where it came from and what it's supposed to be, so it doesn't just become light and fluffy," says LeBlanc Loo. “There's the idea of function over form. There is always form in Bill's work, but at the service of function. It's always hard to make something functional, not decorative."

"There is always form in Bill's work, but at the service of function. It's always hard to make something functional, not decorative."

Says 21-year-old Dossa, a senior, “It's very athletic and powerful, but it also has moments that are really tender and specific to emotion or expression. Everything comes from a certain need. A lot of the partnering is challenging mechanically—it's not set up nice and gently. You're running from the other side of the stage into somebody else's arms."

Due to his demanding schedule, there is no language in the agreement that stipulates Jones' presence on campus, but he did involve himself in the casting for D-Man. Known for accumulating a disparate group of sizes, shapes and backgrounds in his company, he threw a curve ball when he suggested to LeBlanc Loo that one lead role be performed by a student actor without formal dance training. In stepped Mateo Rudich, a theater arts major who had some self-taught break-dancing experience. “I'm learning the sequence, plus technical aspects," says Rudich, who is now minoring in dance. “I remember the first time I did fourth position. I said, 'That's crazy!'"

LeBlanc Loo's Role

After dancing with Jones' company, LeBlanc Loo performed with Baryshnikov's White Oak Project and the Liz Gerring Dance Company and earned her MFA from Hollins University. She taught dance at Long Island University for seven years before joining the faculty at LMU, where she teaches advanced modern technique, repertory and composition in the department of around 85 dance majors and 63 dance minors.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company perform D-Man in the Waters. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of New York Live Arts

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company perform D-Man in the Waters. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of New York Live Arts

Since 2013 she has been producing and co-directing, along with acclaimed documentary cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, a documentary about D-Man in the Waters, titled D-Man, which dovetails with LMU's partnership with Jones' company. The film, to be released in June 2017, includes interviews with original company members, footage from the dance's premiere in 1989 and an inside look at the LMU dancers as they learn the piece from LeBlanc Loo. The question it asks is: “How do you get a group of young people today to reignite the spirit of a generation besieged by AIDS?"

Still, LeBlanc Loo doesn't want anyone to assume that the work is strictly a piece about AIDS. “One thing I have to convey is D-Man in the Waters represents the alchemy of a grieving choreographer, a great piece of music (Felix Mendelssohn's buoyant Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, op. 20) and a company that was at that time more of a family than co-workers," she says. “You put all those things in one studio, and you come out with this dance that has joy, sadness, fear and anger—all of that swirling in it."

Likewise, to her students who choreograph, she advises: “Don't make a dance about anything. Respond physically, honestly and authentically to what it is you feel, hear and think and to what is happening to you—and then your dance can bespeak Black Lives Matter."

Above all, says Leblanc Loo, “I would love them to understand dance not just as the executions of physical feats, but the physical manifestation of ideas and emotion. Dance as an artform has to articulate an idea and emotion. It has to ask questions of the body. And that's what I'm here for."

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