An Ilbijerri Theatre production. Presented by DanceHouse, the Talking Stick Festival, and SFU Woodward's Cultural Programs. At SFU Woodward's in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Wednesday, February 6. Continues until February 9
Australian artist Jacob Boehme mixes a lot into his new dance-theatre work, from vivid multimedia projections to contemporary dance, from poetic memoir to emotional confession. At its core, though, the show feels like a heart-to-heart with a bloke you've gotten to know incredibly well.
Boehme's gift is in building a safe, intimate, and somehow casual-feeling space at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. He does this, in part, before the show begins, dressed in drag, complete with a flowy silk kimono, and circulating with the arriving crowd; in the show's prologue, in which he feigns outrage that his drag character has been given so little time by the writer (Boehme himself), he works his way through the aisles in a spotlight.
Then the robe and the makeup come off right in front of us, and he takes to the stage for one of the show's moodier, wordless dance sequences. Mariaa Randall's choreography subtly works in the movement of traditional Aboriginal dance, which is rooted in the earth and nature.
Through this movement and spoken sections, Boehme tells his incredible life story, sometimes embodying other characters, sometimes confiding his deepest secrets to us. Half-Aboriginal, a descendant of the Narangga and Kaurna nations of South Australia, Boehme found out he was HIV positive at the young age of 24, and he's been living with it for almost 20 years now.
Blood on the Dance Floor tracks the struggles he's gone through, from finding acceptance as a gay man from his own father (who knows he's "that way", but still wants a grandchild) to trying to strike up a long-lasting partnership despite his disease, to the racism he and his siblings faced as children—sometimes within their own family. In one sequence, we learn the implications of Boehme’s having inherited his mother's pale skin; in another, we hear about a gay Aboriginal friend who was disowned by his family and took his own life after acquiring HIV. Blood recurs as a rich motif—as the link to his racial identity and ancestors, as the cells that may threaten his ability to live happily ever after with a partner.
Some of the show's most unsettling moments come when the otherwise gentle and understanding Boehme releases his pent-up rage. There's not a peep in the house when he "goes there": recounting fearlessly how he might have gotten HIV, caught up in the sexual rush of early adulthood, when doing it "raw" and nominally asking someone if they're "clean" seemed like enough in the heat of the moment. But Boehme turns the tables on viewers who dare get judgy, suddenly asking, while pointing his finger at us, "Are you clean?" Who's clean and guiltless, after all? And fuck shame.
Heartfelt sequences like these give way to headier dance expression, most memorably in a sequence where Boehme dances in front of a screen projected with red, bubbling blood in close-up.
He lightens all of this with plenty of swear-laced, self-effacing comedy in his storytelling, including one of the funniest diatribes on the tyranny of IKEA—"the place couples go to die!"—I've ever heard.
Boehme's deeply human story may originate from halfway around the world, and he may tell it in a warm Aussie accent, but it's a plea for love that really resonates in Vancouver, a multiracial city that's dealt with its own crises around HIV, and a place where we're only starting to reconcile with Indigenous peoples. In other words, he could be any bloke you know.