Face 2 Face: For Jacob Boehme, it’s in the blood

Jacob Boehme's work is called Blood on the Dance Floor. Photo: Dorine Blaise

The world has almost 40 years with HIV/AIDS. Treatment has improved dramatically and today the virus is manageable with drugs.

But, while the health of those who carry the virus continues to improve, the stigma hasn’t really gone away.

It’s something the Australian dancer, choreographer and writer Jacob Boehme knows well. Boehme, who is the son of an Indigenous father and white mother, is from Melbourne. He’s a city kid.

“My father met my mother in the city. That is where they settled and where my siblings and I were born and raised.”

As an artist he creates out of experience and, in the case of the work he is bringing to the Face 2 Face festival of dance called Blood on the Dance Floor, that experience is of having HIV. He has been positive since 1998.

This year’s Face 2 Face series features works by three Indigenous voices including Boehme, Lara Kramer of Oji-Cree ancestry and Victoria Hunt, of Māori heritage (New Zealand).

“It doesn’t focus so much on the colour of my skin as in other parts of my identity that are hidden … being gay and having HIV.”

As far as Boehme is concerned when people think about works of art about HIV/AIDS they think about Angels in America or Philadelphia where “everyone is sick and dying.”

That is not his experience with HIV. His life with the virus is under control.

“I regularly get my blood tested because I have to when I am on anti-retrovirals, which give me an undetectable viral load. When you have an undetectable viral load, you cannot transmit the virus.

“I get my blood checked every three to six months. In fact, I get a lot of check-ups, so I’m probably healthier than a lot of people.”

There is irony there.

“Having HIV doesn’t define me, but there are things about it. The conversation about HIV has quietened down because people have assumed that we have certain drugs in western countries and that everything is OK and we don’t need to talk about it any more.”

As a result, “there is a hell of a lot of silence around it today. To me, and to a lot of people, silence equals death because it also brings on isolation and it creates stigma. If you are silent, things aren’t being talked about.”

Not a lot of people are aware, for example that there is a preventive treatment called HIV PrEP.

As an Indigenous person Boehme is aware of the threat posed by HIV in Indigenous communities.

“It is a huge problem in Canada, Australia too. Detection rates here and back home are through the roof. But the communities aren’t talking about it and therefore the shame, the stigma, the isolation and behaviours that come with that are rife.”

When he looks at blood as an artist there is a connection to heritage, he said.

“Even though I have fair skin I have always been brought up to identify as aboriginal,” he said. He is a member of the Narangga and Kaurna nations of South Australia.

But that’s really not the focus of the piece.

“It is a bit of a hybrid. It is theatre, dance and video. It is a simple premise really. It is a story of an ordinary guy doing very ordinary things and just wanting to be loved.

“He is getting ready to go on a date and it is that time in a relationship when you know things are leading down a certain path where commitments might be made and in making those commitments there are certain things you need to be straight about.” Those secrets will come out and you “might as well get them out all at once.”

The secret is really about being ‘poz’. The piece is about disclosure.

“Disclosure is still a harrowing experience for a lot of people living with the virus because of the stigma, because of the shame and because the lack of education and ignorance.

“And in Canada, you are facing being criminalized for not revealing.”

There have been some sensational court cases that have focused on that issue and that adds to the pressure to remain silent.

“If you have all that criminalization, people can be vindictive to other people as well.” It means as well that there are, for example, HIV positive Canadian women who choose to abstain from sex rather than risk a partnership.

“That’s no way to live and it’s not fair. That’s why this story has been written and why we are touring it. Just because we have drugs that keep us alive doesn’t mean conversations should stop.”

Boehme’s work is not typically political, he said, but this is something he is “very passionate about. As I am getting older instead of calming down I’m getting more fiery.”

He said the reaction from audience members has surprised him.

“People want to tell me their stories afterwards. I never expected that but I like it. I’m getting similar reactions in Canada to what I was getting in Australia.”

The show has been performed in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver on this tour which finishes in Ottawa.

He’s enjoying winter, which is a “novelty for us. I like looking out the window and seeing snow.” He’s looking forward to Ottawa because “we hear skating on the canal in Ottawa is a thing.”

Face 2 Face: Blood on the Dance Floor by Jacob Boehme
Where: La Nouvelle Scene Studio A, 333 King Edward Ave.
When: Feb 22 & 23 at 9 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.