Monday 29 June 2015

HIV: a conversation in dance

James Welsby, Chafia Brooks and Benjamin Hancock.
Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti 
'HEX' is a one hour contemporary dance show that looks at the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s from a Gen Y perspective. 

Guest blogger and dance maker James Welsby explains how the show came about.

I've known about ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) for a while, but the recent release of a few core-shaking documentaries made of archival footage has allowed me to take a much closer look at the movement and get a stronger idea of what it felt like to be involved in AIDS activism.

I'm deeply affected by the way in which such a tragedy can unite so many different people and rouse them to act together. I'm also very compelled by the significant rise in new HIV notifications within my age group.

ACT UP formed in 1987, the year I was born. It was also the year the notorious Grim Reaper AIDS prevention campaign ran on Australian television. I feel like there's symbolism there. My generation has grown up in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and in the wake of 'the AIDS crisis' and the activism that surrounded it.

Benjamin Hancock, James Welsby and Chafia Brooks. 
Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Gay men were one of the groups hit the hardest at the beginning of the crisis, so I feel that younger gay men have a responsibility to learn about the impact of the epidemic on our community, both historically and today.

It's important for me to understand how things have changed since the start of the epidemic in the two countries where I've lived my life, Australia and the United States of America, and beyond. I feel that understanding can only come from conversations with the generations that preceded me. We owe a lot to them, and I want to respond to that. In fact, I want to blur the lines between generations, and question if my generation inherits queer activist history, or if we create our own.

James Welsby.
Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti.

I think there's an important relationship between suffering and celebration. Clubs are a key place where this paradoxical relationship plays out. They can be sacred spaces where, struggles notwithstanding, people celebrate themselves. This is why the show is set in a club environment and uses typical nightclub music for the soundtrack.

Benjamin Hancock and James Welsby.
Photo: James Brown.
I'm also interested in club settings because that was where a lot of '80s and '90s queer awareness raising/activist performance lived and breathed.

I'm interested in how bodies move in clubs. I love seeing what comes out of people when they dance for joy - it reveals so much about who they are. For me, dance is a form of stylised body language, and body language can be an expression of identity, so I think dance is a really appropriate vehicle for exploring the themes and history of HIV/AIDS.

There are of course many well-known performance pieces about HIV and AIDS, but my 'take' on it is from the perspective of the 'Millennials' (Gen Y). An important influence for me has been meeting gay men who are 20 or more years older than I am and listening to what they have to say.

There's a huge difference between our generations, and we don't always have the chance to interact. Sometimes you have to quite consciously seek out intergenerational conversations, but these are extremely important because they provide personal links to the history that makes the world I live in what it is today.

I've been interviewing some wonderful queer activists, academics, and artists who were in their youth in the 1980s and 90s. It's been really meaningful for me to meet the people who paved the way for my generation to be more comfortable with ourselves. But there are a lot of people I won't ever be able to talk to, because of the reality of what happened.

I'm responding to that reality.

James Welsby, Benjamin Hancock, and Chafia Brooks.
Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti 

The tour

In February this year, I was fortunate enough to take 'HEX' on a national tour with the incredible support of AFAO and several other partner organisations.

'HEX' was originally developed through Next Wave's Kickstart program and premiered in the Next Wave Festival in May 2014. We also performed, with support from VAC, as part of the Australian Cultural Program and also at the Global Village during the AIDS2014 conference in July last year.

James Welsby. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti
After AIDS2014, I had an offer from PACT Centre for Emerging Artists in Sydney to tour to show to NSW, and after conversations with other venues and presenters around the country, a schedule for a national tour in early 2015 emerged.

As the show centres around Generation Y's perception of the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, it was very important for me to have the show presented in appropriate contexts.

February was a fantastic time to make that happen because it meant the show could be part of Sydney's Mardi Gras,  Brisbane's new queer festival 'MELT,' and the Adelaide Fringe. We also performed in Perth and our last performance on the tour was in Canberra, where we received a standing ovation - a wonderful way to end the tour.

Over 5,000 people have now seen the show and engaged with its themes. Both the dance and queer communities have enthusiastically supported the production.

I really wanted to keep conversations about HIV and AIDS going, and find creative ways to present and reflect on these themes. I'm extremely proud of my whole team, and all who have supported the production. I'm humbled from the experience, and have grown immeasurably as an artist and a person.

A four-minute 'super cut' from the 2015 Australian tour:

HEX Tour 2015 [Supercut] from James Welsby on Vimeo.

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