CN D Magazine

#2 Jan 23

How HIV/AIDS Still
Haunts the Dance World

Florian Gaité

Mauvais genre, Alain Buffard, Centre national de la danse © Marc Domage

Emergencies can sometimes fade from the collective mind. HIV/AIDS is practically a case study, as it now seems dormant in our collective unconscious, as if condoms, tri-therapies and PrEP (the treatment which prevents people from being infected by the virus) were enough to hide its dangers. In a context of relative indifference, the dance world, which was badly hit by the epidemic, is one of the last strongholds resisting silence. Since the 1990s, HIV/AIDS has solidified its presence in the minds, movement and discourses of choreographers, a number of whom have turned their dance practice into a way of honoring the memory of the crisis and raising awareness.

Museums and revivals of choreographic works have both played a part in keeping the memory of HIV/AIDS alive in the French dance world. Several recent exhibitions – such as “Rebellious Bodies” at Lyon’s Musée des Confluences in 2017, “HIV/AIDS, The Epidemic Isn’t Over” at Marseille’s Mucem in 2022, and Exposé·es, scheduled this year at the Palais de Tokyo with the CN D – have focused on the traces and ghosts left behind by the height of the crisis. Continued performances of pieces like Alain Buffard’s Mauvais Genre at the CN D and Dominique Bagouet’s So Schnell (recently recreated by Catherine Legrand) help celebrate those who were on the frontlines, too: while urgency may have morphed into a more diffuse awareness of the struggle, history and the persistence of HIV/AIDS go hand in hand.

The HIV/AIDS crisis became visible very quickly in the dance world. At the turn of the 1990s, the epidemic claimed the lives of Hideyuki Yano (1988), Arnie Zane (1988), Dominique Bagouet (1992), Jorge Donn (1992) and Rudolf Noureev (1993), among others. The choreographers who lived through this time period attempted to counteract the sense of shock, exorcise their fears and channel their anger by putting disillusioned bodies onstage, made brutally vulnerable after enjoying the freedom conferred by the revolutionary events of 1968 and the exponential growth of contemporary dance in France. While the body had hitherto been presented as a performing entity or an object of pleasure, it now appeared in a state of precarious survival, torn between the evidence of its biological vulnerability and a renewed desire to live.

So Schnell, Dominique Bagouet, Fonds Jean Marie Gourreau © Médiathèque du CND

With the arrival of HIV/AIDS, desire was also suddenly caught in a dance of death, as in Derek Jarman’s prophetic film (Death Dance), which opened the way to a Thanatos-led belly dance in Thierry Smits’s 1991 Eros Délétère. Mourning seemed urgent, imminent: that was what Dominique Bagouet evoked with So Schnell (“so fast” in German), a piece he created two years before his death. The iconic dancer Jorge Donn died the same year, and Maurice Béjart dedicated his rock homage Le Presbytère to Donn, his great love. Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here even turned agony into spectacle. The American choreographer worked with terminally ill patients and presented tired, weakened or dying bodies clad in red, which caused him to be accused of exhibitionism and victimization.

The dance world didn’t merely call for collective mourning, however. Choreographers wanted to act, to make up for the lack of governmental action and the defection of most doctors and medical staff, and to fight against the stigmatization of people affected by the disease. From the very beginning of the crisis, Anna Halprin welcomed HIV-positive patients to her therapeutic workshops, at a time when few wanted to approach them. In 1989, Lloyd Newson created Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, a dance manifesto defending love between men and so-called “deviant” sexualities that were criminalized and shamed.

The impact of HIV/AIDS triggered a profound shift in choreographic forms, altering expectations as well as the subject matters dance was associated with. Spectacular formalism faded away from many stages; you can’t fight death with arabesques, or so people thought. The new bodies that emerged were torn between loneliness, helplessness and incredulity, as well as a strong desire not to wallow in complaint. Haunted by the death of his HIV-positive friends, Jérôme Bel, among others, proposed a critical reading of the alienations and aggressions endured by the contemporary body in a work that bore his name.

But it was the radicality of Alain Buffard’s 1998 Good Boy that proved the biggest shock for French audiences. On stage, the choreographer’s slow, clinical, uneroticized body was both burdened and bare, utterly defeated by the shortcomings of the medical and political response to HIV/AIDS. Buffard later passed down this work to a group of dancers composed of both men and women (under the title Mauvais Genre) – a way not to position himself as a victim but to question difference, gender, identities in crisis and the discipline of bodies, issues that were all raised by the AIDS epidemic.

The death toll started to decline in the 2000s, and became less publicized. Around that time, the idea of a “post-AIDS era” confirmed the need for dance to remind the public of the continued reality of the crisis. Choreographers delved into the lives of HIV-positive individuals: some wove together love stories and the history of repression, like Thomas Lebrun’s Three Decades of Surrounded Love (2013), while Trajal Harrell offered a heroic depiction of Bagouet in The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samuraï (2015).

These narratives also became more and more inclusive. In 2002, Robyn Orlin’s We Must Eat Our Suckers With the Wrappers decentered what was previously a Euro-centric perspective towards Africa, the continent that had become the most affected by the virus. Dave St-Pierre highlighted the role of transgender people in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. Deconstructing the way shame took hold also allowed individuals to reclaim their right to sensuality, to get past the fear of touching and bodily fluids, as is evident for instance in the work of Lili Reynaud Dewar. The images associated with the crisis were reshaped, celebrating the adaptability of living bodies in the process.

While the HIV/AIDS epidemic proved a powerful vector of change in contemporary dance history, its meaning exceeds the scope of choreography. It is no longer possible to grasp it only through the lens of choreographers’ individual experiences, nor ignore the profound metamorphoses it initiated in the representation of bodies. Whether the dancing body is touched, exposed or affected, its performances are the result of social shifts, and it speaks to the state of the world it exists in. On stage, physical intimacy has political value, which makes telling stories like that of HIV/AIDS all the more urgent – if only to inspire resistance against an epidemic that has yet to end.

Mauvais Genre by Alain Buffard
Re-creation by Matthieu Doze and Christophe Ives (2023)
at CN D
from 30.03 to 01.04.23

As part of Exposé·es
Shows + performances + exhibition +
meeting + ball
at CN D
from 09.03 to 13.05.23
Full program Exposé.es at CN D

Exhibition and programme conceived
in collaboration with the Palais de Tokyo.