What’s in a name? For Indigenous Australians who have been dislocated from their land and culture, traditional names can be a lifeline, a connection to country. That link has played a vital role in the ongoing multi-disciplinary work of dancer, choreographer, writer, puppeteer and all-round Renaissance man Jacob Boehme, associate producer of Ilbijerri Theatre Company and incoming creative director of the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival.
Dance is Boehme’s blood. His mother clearly recalls him dancing in his nappies to ABBA’s Eurovision Song Contest winning ‘Waterloo’ back in 1974. On lunch break during rehearsals for his new solo work Blood on the Dance Floor, which will be presented by Ilbijerri at North Melbourne Town Hall’s Arts House next week, a sprightly Boehme has a glint in his eye when he shares the rather literal origin of the title.
Rehearsing a traditional dance piece in a run-down Sydney venue not long after being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1998, he stood on an exposed nail. “I got really worried because I’d left a trail of blood on the dance floor behind me.”
A descendant of the Narangga and Kaurna nations of South Australia, Melbourne born and bred Boehme was reminded of the incident many years later while working on another production with Blood on the Dance Floor director Isaac Drandic and dancer Tammi Gissell. The latter told Boehme he surely had the name for his latest work, a deeply autobiographical piece grappling with the stigma of being black, gay and positive that’s also a story about finding and accepting love.
Two years before his own diagnosis, a close friend of Boehme’s took his own life in 1996 shortly after discovering he was HIV-positive. Boehme would receive his own positive diagnosis two years later. “I threw my hands up in the air and went, ‘what next?’” he says. “At that stage the meds were changing, but there was still this kind of spectre hanging around like it was a death sentence. And when you get news of any kind of considered terminal illness you go through shock, anger, off the rails a bit and then get back on board.”
As with all traumatic periods in his life, Boehme turned to his ancestors as his cornerstone. “It’s the one thing that I always go back to, the one unfaltering source of strength,” he says.
2013 marked the 30th anniversary of the first diagnosis in Australia and 15 years since his own. It was the impetus to expand upon a shorter monologue with what has now become Blood on the Dance Floor’s full-length fusion of dance, visual projection and text - a work which he hopes will broaden the dialogue surrounding HIV stigma.
“I don’t know if it’s that we haven’t found a way to talk about it or whether the whole AIDS industry is such a gay white male-controlled one, but there are other voices that haven’t been let in,” he says. “Women being one, Aboriginal being another and the list goes on. Even after 30 years, stigma is coming mainly from within the gay male community, which hasn’t come to any kind of a resolution about it.”
The idea of spectres haunts this work, with the physicality of Boehme’s performance, choreographed by Mariaa Randall, accompanied by projections designed by video artist Keith Deverell. “When you get into the question of wanting to be loved and bring it back to the issue of having something within you that is unseen, under your skin but a part of your physiology and physicality, then the idea was to have Keith work not only with projections on very large surfaces but also the body, so sometimes my poetry is projected as text on me,” Boheme reveals.
Drandic, working away on the sidelines, chimes in that Blood on the Dance Floor is a work that should speak to us all, regardless of status. “The overarching theme about all of this is love and we can all access that story.”
Boehme agrees. Blood as a symbol carries many meanings. It’s about family, tradition and brotherhood as much as it is about HIV/AIDS. “Like Isaac was saying, it’s universal. We all want to love and be loved. It’s a shared need whether you are straight or gay, black or white, poz or neg. We all have our secrets, parts of ourselves and our identities that most of our lives we’re either on a journey to accept or change.”
Most of all it’s a story about hope. Recent research into the theory of epigenetic inheritance, the idea that trauma can be carried in our DNA and passed on to future generations, intrigues Boehme. “If those codes are already in there - pain, trauma, shock - then obviously, if we’re going by the law of nature, there must be resilience, courage, hope and brilliance too.”