BalletLab tackle HIV/AIDS via objects of beauty
BalletLab’s production Live With It we all have HIV, is part of the 20th International AIDS Conference to be held in Melbourne in July. Stephen A Russell talks to artistic director Phillip Adams about this unique and moving performance.
BalletLab artistic director Phillip Adams moved to New York City as a 23-year-old man in 1988, just as the HIV/AIDS epidemic began ravaging the gay male community in particular. Though he never contracted HIV, he felt the devastation of lost friends and colleagues keenly.
Over 25 years later, Adams jumped at the opportunity to create a new work that explores the stories of Victorians living with HIV/AIDS that will be presented at North Melbourne’s Arts House as part of the cultural program of the 20th International AIDS Conference, to be held in Melbourne this July. Working in collaboration with visual artist Andrew Hazewinkel and the Victorian AIDS Council, Live With It we all have HIV began with a series of workshops with people living with HIV/AIDS, or those who have lost friends and family members, both in the city and also taking BalletLab beyond Melbourne’s boundaries for the first time and heading out to regional Victoria.
Adams and Hazewinkel hit on a simple yet incredibly powerful way to connect both physically and visually to these stories: they asked each participant, of varying ethnicities, ages, gender and sexual orientation, to bring in an object that speaks to their connection with HIV/AIDS.
“People brought in some amazing things that told the story through the lens of a bottle of pills, a picture, a bag, a vase or a video,” Adams says. “We documented all of those experiences as a holistic collective, and that exchange is transmitted in a way by the storytelling link of the object.”
Using video projected onto a massive screen, including footage of the participants filmed by Hazewinkel, Adams’ choreography, the spoken word and the power of the objects themselves, they hope to bring these stories to life in an ambitious, multi-disciplinary piece that literally asks the audience to become a part of the history of the HIV/AIDS experience in Victoria. Two weeks before the performance is staged, some of these donated objects will be posted to attendees.
“You’ll receive a package in the mail with a little note asking you to live with this object for the next two weeks and to bring it to the performance,” Adams says. “You’ll listen to the ABBA CD, watch a movie on DVD or eat with their knife and fork. Then when you come on the night you’ll meet the person it belongs to and the story starts there.”
Adams says it’s vitally important to tackle the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS head on, and that the spotlight provided by the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne is ideal. “These stories need to be archived in a cultural context, otherwise they will be lost. Many of the participants have never had this opportunity before, to have their stories presented.”
Christos Linou, who is studying a master’s degree in dance at Melbourne University, wants to share the story of his brother Jack, who died of AIDS-related complications after contracting HIV from sharing needles while using heroin.
“The lower rung of drug users and junkies didn’t seem to get the same attention,” Linou says. “Regardless of behaviours, people still have desires in life similar to our own. His life was cut short, and people can forget quite quickly, so I’d like to have his story talked about. People were typecast.”
As well as drawing on old VHS and audiocassettes of him and his brother growing up, Linou has also shared a ring designed by Jack, who embraced art following a stint in jail. “He changed his life from living in the underbelly to making art and creating, painting and poetry. From then on he tried his best to improve his health. He struggled hard and was a guinea pig for the original AZT trials. The ring signifies his sense of hope.”
Adams says hope sings through Live With It we all have HIV’s rich seam of stories.
“Life changed for all of us. It’s now like a snow globe, I can shake it up and look at it. HIV is not in my blood, but it’s in the history of my body, in the knowledge of that epidemic. If I can speak to that experience and have others speak up and tell their stories, physically or visually, then this will be a really important and powerful piece.”
Live With It we all have HIV is at the Arts House Meat Market from July 17-27, balletlab.com