Jacob Boehme’s autobiographical Blood on the Dance Floor digs intimately and honestly into living with HIV in Australia—as both a gay man and an Aboriginal man.
The theatremaker, dancer, writer, and puppeteer found out in 1998 that he had the virus. That kind of diagnosis might lead you to expect bleak subject matter in his solo show. Instead, the multidisciplinary work is, at its core, about hope and love, he stresses.
“No matter how bad things get, there’s that simple human desire for love,” the Melbourne-based artist, a member of the Narangga and Kaurna nations of southern Australia, tells the Straight from a tour stop in Alberta. “When you face your mortality, as I did 20 years ago, you live or you die. Admittedly, I was very young when I got my diagnosis. And of course I had a range of emotions; the seven paths of grieving came along. But that quickly came around: that child in me was saying, ‘I want to live.’ ”
The impetus for the production came in 2013, the year that marked the 30th anniversary of the first HIV diagnosis in Australia. Boehme had considered telling his personal story on-stage, and figured the time was now. “I thought, ‘You’re not getting any younger,’ ” he says, adding that the solo was a huge departure for him, not only because of the candid revelations it would require: “I had always made dances on others, not just on myself. And this was text-driven work, which was new for me.”
But perhaps his main motivation was to tell a story about HIV that diverged from the norm. “You look at any depiction of people with HIV and there’s always a reference to sickness and death, and always a reference to AIDS. But if you’re fortunate enough to live in a western country, we don’t really have to deal with AIDS.”
Instead, for Boehme, it was a chronic but manageable illness for which he took medication each morning. “But there’s so much stigma and shame and silence around it,” he says.
To break that silence, Boehme talks frankly to the audience about sexuality, society, and segregation. At one moment, he recounts the fears implicit in telling his date he’s HIV–positive; at another, he morphs into his father, who yearns for grandchildren.
He crafts a work that draws upon his bloodline, his Aboriginal ancestry, not just in the traditional dance that weaves throughout the choreography by Mariaa Randall, but in the way it was built. “I’ve learned that we have performance methodology that predates Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Aristotle,” he says.
Even in the video projections by Keith Deverell, the imagery reflects the ceremonial body painting his peoples used in storytelling.
Building Blood on the Dance Floor led him to tie his own story in with the intergenerational traumas of Australia’s Aborigines—a narrative that closely reflects what has happened to Indigenous people here in Canada, a population that is also suffering rising HIV infection rates. But as Boehme studied that trajectory, it led to a path of hope.
“I was researching epigenetic studies, and pretty much science in that area has determined all of our reactions to trauma, the fight-or-flight response, is passed on to us in our DNA, from our grandmothers,” he explains. “It’s already coded in your DNA. So I kind of figured that if we handled all these reactions to trauma in our DNA, then surely we have resilience and hope also coded in there—a way out.”
DanceHouse, SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs, and the Talking Stick Festival present ILBIJERRI Theatre Company’s Blood on the Dance Floor at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from next Wednesday to Saturday (February 6 to 9).