“IF you’ve ever been in love, you will understand this show,” writer and performer Jacob Boehme says of “Blood on the Dance Floor,” coming soon to Tuggeranong Arts Centre.
Directed by Isaac Drandic, for Ilbijerri Theatre Company, it wowed them at Melbourne’s Arts House in 2016, at Carriageworks during the Sydney Festival in 2017, in Canada early this year and now it’s on tour nationally.
There’s a striking parallel between the title of “Blood on the Dance Floor” and that of local dancer Liz Lea’s solo production “RED”, which dealt with the crippling condition of endometriosis. The parallel has struck him, too.
In Boehme’s case – and he makes no bones about it – he was diagnosed with HIV in 1998. In search of answers, he reached out to his ancestors in the Narangga and Kaurna nations of SA to look at the legacies and memories of bloodlines, our need for community, and what blood means to each of us.
These days he unapologetically identifies as “black, gay and poz”, arguing that his show “is an opportunity to create a space for our mob to have a voice in the dialogue around HIV”.
Coincidentally, he got the title from one of Liz Lea’s dance collaborators Tammi Gissell when, after a minor nick on his heel during a rehearsal, he left a red trail on the dance floor – “there you are,” Gissell told him, “that’s your title.”
This is dance theatre not abstract dance, and the movement has to have a reason to be there, although he is quick to note that the choreography by Mariaa Randall is brilliant.
“Blood on the Dance Floor” is not a puppetry show but rather a complex weave of narrative, dance and video art on a huge screen created by Keith Deverell, with sound design by James Henry. He and Deverell grappled with the wish to create a work based on indigenous dramaturgy, finding the answer in ceremony.
He plays many roles, include that of his father, and says: “It’s partly a love letter to my dad, an Aboriginal man growing up in Australia with a mix of issues.”
Boehme is the triple treat – in his case it’s an unusual combination of dance, writing and puppetry. Initially trained in dance at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, he has a masters in playwriting from the Victorian College of the Arts and studied puppetry with former Canberra Artist of the Year Peter J Wilson.
He’s narrator and protagonist of “Blood on the Dance Floor”, which is built on a simple premise – a young man is dating someone and the moment comes to reveal that he’s HIV positive.
“A lot of people can’t do that, they can’t even tell their mother, so it’s about the secrets we hide, about what we hold in our blood, which is the source of life, shame and pride.”
“In the old days, by the time you got to Act III, everybody would be dead, but it’s just not so anymore,” he says, and as one of the beneficiaries of antiretroviral drugs, he’s never had to stop dancing or acting.
Boehme, as a survivor, is very aware of his responsibilities. The light-skinned one in his family, he sailed through school without racial taunts.
“My aunties and grandmas told me: “You ‘pass’, so your job is to get an education and bring it back to your community’.”
While artist-in-residence at Tuggeranong, he has invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to meet him, saying: “We need to mobilise as a community, using the lived experiences of our brothers and sisters who are living and thriving with HIV, to lead a new age of sexual health awareness that is self-determined and culturally appropriate.”
A big difference between this and other plays on the subject is that it’s positive – ”It’s an optimistic ending, it’s one of hope – you have to be that way.”
“Blood on the Dance Floor”, Tuggeranong Arts Centre, 5pm and 8pm, Saturday August 24. Book at trybooking.com