Jacob Boehme is a man of many identities. A choreographer, dancer and writer from the Narangga and Kaurna nations of South Australia, Jacob was diagnosed with HIV in 1998.
All of this feeds into ‘Blood on the Dancefloor’, a solo performance that illustrates through dance, storytelling and projection, Jacob's journey as a HIV-positive, Aboriginal man. Through the performance, Jacob reaches out to his ancestors to find answers to complex questions, while educating viewers on the intricacies of complex identities.
The performance debuted in 2016 with positive reviews, along the lines of this high praise in the Sydney Morning Herald "Theatre and dance don't usually achieve such compelling synergy. Boehme is marvellous: his charismatic presence and easy smile, graceful movement and the emotional intelligence behind his storytelling make this an entertaining, moving work that elicits as much empathy as laughter."
Opening tomorrow at the Darwin Festival, the performance then travels to Melbourne as part of the Big World, Up Close Festival, along with a one-off show at Bunjil Place. To fully appreciate the work, understanding the man is helpful.
Jacob grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, at a time when being either gay or Aboriginal was enough to be bullied. But being both had its own unique challenges, especially when also dealing with inter-generational trauma and the ‘privilege’, as he describes it, of being a fair-skinned Aboriginal person.
“Dad was dark skinned as were my Aunties but us cousins, we are a bit of a rainbow. We all came out multicoloured.
“I’ve had it very lucky. I’m very well aware of my privilege. I was born with fair skin, I look like my mother. I get treated like a white man when I walk down the street.”
Passing... anything other than Aboriginal
Today Jacob is very proud of his Aboriginality, but as a youngster it was not discussed. Back then, admitting to being Aboriginal could be shameful.
Jacob's grandmother was given an ‘exemption’ from the mission when she was 17, which meant “you couldn’t associate with Aboriginals, you couldn’t call yourself an Aboriginal.”
“That led to her raising my father and his siblings to identify themselves as Indian, Malaysian.. all kinds of things to ‘pass’. Which was not unusual [at the time] but did some psychological damage. When your whole identity is based on secrets and lies and shame, then that has some really disastrous effects.”
Jacob says that his father “self-medicated” to deal with the trauma of a hidden identity; his father’s story is one of the themes explored in 'Blood on the Dancefloor', or in his words “the secrets in our blood.”
The show is not only about trauma. Deeply embedded is the “generational wisdom and hope and resilience” that is passed down as well.
Not only does Jacob explore his identity as an Aboriginal person through his art, he also explores his identity as part of the LGBTIQ community. Growing up with such identity conflict made for a difficult upbringing, which included being bullied.
A queer boy amongst blokey blokes
“In the western suburbs of Melbourne, where you’re just surrounded by ‘blokey blokes’, tradesmen and all boys who play, or should play footy on the weekend, that was the culture I grew up in. So being a little queer boy, you have to develop survival skills.”
However, when he was 22 years old, he started dance training at NAISDA, where he says his multiple identities “really came together”, he found acceptance.
One profound experience was when the students had to learn Tiwi Island ceremonial dance, and then travel up to the islands to perform for the Elders. He was initially fearful the Elders would be critical of a gay, male student performing what he thought was a ‘manly’ dance. To his surprise, when he arrived he discovered a whole community of sista-girls.
It was a pivotal revelation to have while so young. Jacob learned “queerness and Aboriginality and culture - there were no exclusions” and that “all of these so-called ‘multiple identities’ can exist as the one thing.”
The day life changed
In 1998 Jacob was diagnosed with HIV. He remembers the day with vivid clarity.
“Everyone who’s ever been diagnosed with HIV probably has that day or moment imprinted in their mind. I still remember the walk to the doctor. I still remember walking down busy King St with traffic and pedestrians and noise, but all I could hear in my head with every step was my own voice shouting in my head ‘no, no, no’.”
At the time, his biggest fear was not being able to form intimate relationships, “almost instantly the thought comes into your head, well there goes the chances of having a relationship. No one will want me now.”
Fear suddenly hit him: “I’m going to die alone.”
Today, Jacob is in a successful relationship and due to get married to his fiancé while touring the world with his latest show.
He recently returned from Canada where he performed ‘Blood on the Dance Floor’ and conducted workshops and master classes with other Indigenous artists.
Just like the theme of this work, resilience is certainly in Jacob’s blood; from a young man just diagnosed with HIV in 1998, to a successful touring performer more than 20 years later.
If Jacob could speak to his younger self back then, he would tell the young Jacob: “Remember, you are loved.”
Blood on the Dancefoor will be showing on August 13-15 at the Darwin Festival; August 20 and 21 at Fairfax Studio as part of the Big World, Up Close Festival (Melbourne); and in Bunjil Place (Melbourne) on August 22.
*Correction - this article has been updated to correct an error identifying Jacob and his brother Luke in the photo caption.