In the blood

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02 Jun 2015

The first thing to notice about Jacob Boehme, is how softly spoken he is. In fact, I have to ask him to lean into the microphone so it can pick up his voice. He obliges with a smile. “I wasn’t sure anyone would want to see performance about HIV. There’s been a resurgence of work recently, especially around AIDS 2014,” he murmurs. “But I was surprised, excited actually, that the first showing was packed out and people stayed for a long time afterwards talking and reacting. That was a good sign.”

He’s talking about his latest production: Blood on the Dance Floor. It’s a visceral work utilising dance, theatre and the spoken word to tell a powerful story — one that draws on Boehme’s experiences as an indigenous gay man living with HIV. It’s a story, he explains, that began in Sydney when a close friend, another indigenous dancer, was diagnosed HIV. “He hanged himself shortly after. That was my first experience of HIV face-to-face — ‘OK, so you get HIV and then you kill yourself’. When I was diagnosed, I thought of my friend and had to do some reach-out to my ancestors to help overcome the feelings of stigma and shame.”

Boehme was diagnosed with HIV in 1998, and his decision to develop Blood on the Dance Floor happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of his diagnosis, his 40th birthday and the 30th anniversary of HIV in Australia. In all of this, Boehme felt there were some dramatic undertones to explore through dance.

For Boehme, dance is about the connectedness to country; of traditional story-telling, dreaming and lore. Having trained performing Western dance, it was indigenous dance that Boehme felt a burning desire to connect to. “It’s through learning the traditional dance that your lore, your place, your belonging is taught to you. And from that place of belonging we can share our own stories as well.” 

Boehme grew up “a proud Westie” in Newport, Melbourne. His father was a Narangga and Kaurna man from South Australia; his mother from Anglo-Australian stock. “My earliest memory of there being an issue was when my baby sister started primary school. She started crying when I walked her home. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me they were calling her names, making fun of her Aboriginality. “They hadn’t picked up on me, because I looked more like them. ‘You don’t look Aboriginal’; ‘You’re too smart to be an Aboriginal’ — that’s what the kids would say. 25 years later and I’m not so sure much has changed; mention HIV to gay guys today and they reach for the garlic and the cross.”

A constant flow of aunties and uncles from Boehme father’s side of the family kept the boy engaged with his indigenous heritage, but it wasn’t until he started university that local elders guided him toward what was to become his life’s passion — dance. “There is a history of dance-men and women in my family, so this kind of storytelling is in my blood.”

Blood on the Dance Floor combines traditional art forms and disciplines rarely seen successfully in Western theatre in Australia. “I’ve taken the work right back to my foundations, which is in ceremony. I’m trying to reconstruct our ceremonies now for a contemporary theatre audience with a topic that certainly wasn’t around for my ancestors.”

Boehme’s experience of being HIV-positive is something he says everyone can relate to. “It’s about having secret identities within us, falling in love, of being courageous, of blood and legacy, and memories we all hold in our blood, through our ancestors. Everyone — black or white or any colour — has the memories of our ancestors in our DNA, in our blood. HIV isn’t going to take these away, but it is going to make them more precious.”

Blood on the Dance Floor has been burning in Boehme for a while — since 2012. And, he admits, the production very nearly became his swansong. “I thought, I’m going to create a solo work and bow out at the age of 40, as a flabby slut. And I was being dramatic at 39, saying: ‘I’m going to do my last dance work ever!’ But it’s turned out to be an autobiographical story that shows no signs of ending any time soon.”

Blood on the Dance Floor formally premieres at the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival in 2016.