Blak Positivity, Annotated

From Oz, multimedia solo oversteps triple stigma: gay, aboriginal, HIV

Epigenetics in Dreamtime. Photo: Dorine Blaise

If you go to Jacob Boehme’s solo performance of Blood on the Dance Floor, do stay for the post-show talkback. The intensely personal multimedia work relates the Australian writer/dancer’s struggle for connection and self-acceptance under his triple stigma as a gay, HIV positive aboriginal artist.

But, while full of dazzling elements, the two-hour show might not be easy to parse without some explanatory “end-notes.”

Part of the reason is language. There’s a lot of spoken word, both live and recorded, almost all in various shadings of Strine. It’s a lovely dialect, blithe and fleet, but Boehme lays it on a bit too thick for us non-Okkers to catch on the fly.

Then there’s his narrative style. No plodding “once upon a time” chronology here. He jumps right into his stories mid-stream, leaving us to backfill the context as best we can.

Same goes for the videos (by Keith Deverell) projected onto the massive backscreen of SFU Woodwards’ basement auditorium: reeling lights, swarming cellules (breath bubbles? frogs’ eggs?), extreme close-ups of some grizzled, basilisk-eyed hunk (Boehme’s father? his lover?). Powerful imagery, strikingly juxtaposed against Boehme’s live, dancing figure; make of it what you will.

His dancing speaks for itself, impressively, with loose-limbed vigour and fluency. He’s a schooled dancer, versed not only in the immemorial dance of his own South Australian Narangga and Kaurna Nations, but also in influences as varied as Martha Graham, hip-hop, salsa and Bharatanatyam.

As choreographed by Mariaa Randall (a dance academy classmate from North Australia’s Bundjalung/Yaegi Nations), Boehme can fill the stage with tumbleweed turns or mesmerize with intricate contortions like a marionette that somehow pulls its own strings.

He can also vamp like a drag queen, which is how we first meet him, standing at the auditorium door in a sea-green silk caftan, bald and beaming with a smile as dazzling as his silver earrings, greeting us one-by-one with a personal invitation to “Enjoy, dahling!”

And it’s in this persona that he launches the show, spotlighted high up in the bleachers lipsticking himself in a hand mirror while descanting, with macabre drollery, about the initial AIDS toll upon the Melbourne gay community. It’s as heart-rending as it is funny, but a bit alien to some of the cis-gendered audience.

But then he plucks off his earrings, sheds his wrap (just flinging it to drape over whatever hapless concert-goer happens to be seated nearby) and takes to the stage, barefoot in singlet and tights. No more exoticism, from here on. Now Boehme and his director, Isaac Drandie of Sidney’s ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, are out to make the onstage character accessible to all.

As Drandie writes in the programme notes, for “anyone who’s ever been in love…whether you’re gay or straight, white or black, female or male, HIV positive or negative, a dance or theatre fan…there is a way into this world.”

So we track Boehme as he paces nervously outside a restaurant prepping for a “pop-the-question” dinner with a dreamboat boyfriend; as he fields his well-meaning Dad’s counsel to settle down with a nice girl “just so’s you don’t end up lonely”; as he ramps up to a giddy (and graphically described) tryst, only to be scotched at the crucial last minute of penetration with the gasping query “Are you clean?”

Which sound designer James Henry echoes through reverb crescendos as Boehme hurls the damning insinuation back at the audience: “Are. You. Clean?!” And then the mumbled formulae of regretful distancing: “but we could have been great together,” “but you don’t look sick,” “can we be friends?”

Along with these word-salads, Henry assembles sonic montages for the dance segments – clangorous metallophones with a syncopated backbeat and an occasional tonal overlay vaguely reminiscent of the Big Ben chimes.

Boehme takes on his father’s voice to relate vignettes of aboriginal life in The Mission (that’s Strine for The Rez). We even get to meet his grandma, though it’s unclear whether she’s a fleshly or a ghostly presence. There’s some mention of Malaysians, Filipinos and East Indians. He bounds up the aisle to gulp some water and pills that he’s stashed in the bleachers.

And then we segue into a mythic story, beautifully danced, about a fishing flamingo who, pursued by an eagle, has to hide its prize catch in a cave. The buried trophy fish decomposes. Its bones turn to stones. The stones turn to gems. The gems become stars which spangle the sky.

Whereupon the soloist brings us back to earth, introducing himself straight at us, front-and-center downstage with a matter-of-fact recitation of the stigmatising – or merely embarrassing – salients that have burdened him most of his life: he’s Jacob Boehm, gay, aboriginal, HIV positive for nearly 20 years, now. Asymptomatic under a regimen of retroviral drugs. And he buys his laundry soap at COSTCO.

Which earns him a standing ovation from the largely First Nations audience (the show is jointly sponsored by Full Circle Talking Stick Festival, along with Dance House and SFU Woodward’s). He’s already been in town a week, mostly speaking and meeting with Indigenous groups, who must already be familiar with his style and background.

For the rest of us, though, it could be a bit daunting to connect the many engaging elements of the performance. So that’s where the post-show talk comes in.

It turns out the linking theme is Blood, as the title suggests. As he was creating the work, Boehme kept a decanted phial of his own blood (supplied by a helpful phlebotomist) on his desk for inspiration. Blak blood, “tainted” by virus. Blood bearing, at the cellular level, the epigenetic trace in its very DNA of the accumulated trauma of his aboriginal ancestors under colonial rule. But also the seeds of resilience and self-realization.

Hence the grandma references (Boehme’s Nana, an “exempted” off-Rez Aboriginal, nevertheless had to make her way, due to her darker complexion, among Australia’s “coloured” underclasses of Malaysians, Filipinos and East Indians). The epigenetic reference even suggests the frogs’ egg imagery (Boehme had been reading about frog experiments pointing to the heritability of trauma and resilience).

And hence the Indigenous “grandma’s tale” of the buried fish morphing into a star-spangled sky. It all comes together if you stay out the talkback. Everything resolves in Dreamtime.


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