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SYDNEY FESTIVAL 2017


Art takes on despair

Vicki Van Hout: Blood on the Dance Floor; Prize Fighter; Huff


Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor
photo Prudence Upton courtesy Sydney Festival 2017

Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor

I don't know if I could ever be objective watching, experiencing, reliving and now reflecting on Jacob Boehme's largely autobiographical dance theatre work, Blood on the Dance Floor, that draws on his experience as an Aboriginal man living with HIV. In a way, he is of my ilk, if not exactly my kin. His memories as a young gay male Indigenous dancer in the 90s are inextricably interwoven with mine.

NAISDA (National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association) of the late 80s and early 90s represented an insular family made up of youth from all over the country, needing to get away from Country to find out who they/we really were; dance was the vehicle that enabled us. As a result, I witnessed many young men embrace their sexuality and, as if overnight, lose their lives to it, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic took hold and flourished.

Entering the theatre we are personally greeted by Boehme with plenty of light embraces accompanied by multiple air kisses. Dressed in a pastel satin kimono and with heavy costume jewellery adorning his lobes, he is loud and camp, delivering blue banter with acerbic wit and a slightly gravelly, deadpan cackle. I am immediately transported to Sydney's Oxford Street in its heyday. Boehme’s alter-ego is Percy. Sadly, I forget if she comes complete with her own in-built punch line.

Boehme deftly disrobes and Percy is no more. She does not return, nor herald a linear chronological beginning. She is, as she claims, merely an epilogue.

Before Boehme reintroduces himself in a new guise, he dances. Choreographed in collaboration with Mariaa Randall, the language is uncluttered, augmented by simple, small gestural motifs which consolidate the narrative. One of the more poignant moments features a bleeding finger, presented to the audience as one would an offending exhibit in evidence, before turning it on us in accompaniment to accusingly repetitious quizzing: “Are you clean? Are you clean?” Perhaps daring one of us to be the first to cast a stone.

The dance is definitely not what I’m expecting. I thought there'd be more clear evidence of the Indigenous community-based languages we were taught as students of NAISDA. The dominant language in Boehme’s dancing resembles what I've seen from many of my VCA graduate peers from roughly the same era (90s onwards).

As a fellow Indigenous contemporary performance maker, it takes me a while to understand that if Boehme had danced the way I expected, he would be surrendering to a stereotype. In fact, the training at NAISDA drawn from Indigenous communities belongs to him (and to me) as do the techniques of Graham, Limon or Cunningham; they are alien in that none of them come from our respective Countrys. If Boehme is truly aiming to recapture ancestral processes—as he claims to be when speaking of his work as part of a panel at the Seymour Centre, titled Talking Dance: handle with care—then utilising the predominantly Western contemporary dance forms of the time he was referencing, was most logical as he was performing on Western theatrical country (the stage).

The set is also simple and spare, consisting of a raised rectangular mainstage with a short runway attached from downstage right. Quick shifts in theme and character, from relatives to friends and past lovers, are enhanced by block lighting that has Boehme recede in shadowed relief or lit in concert with video artist Keith Deverell's slow moving images in extreme close-up. Weathered limbs clothed in grubby, worn fabric evoke a nameless man Boehme had seen on the street, deteriorating from the AIDS epidemic's first wave. An eye as big as Boehme’s head— bigger, still and staring—signifies close scrutiny from “Daddy Eyes” and is used as a segue to introduce his father, whom Boehme plays as a gruff yet likeable man who has always known his son was "that way,” before humorously proceeding to problem solve how he might have grandchildren to carry on the bloodline. An image of red blood accumulating bubbles fills the screen, prompting us to think of the virus infiltrating Boehme’s system and the futility of his father’s wishes. Last is the horizontal brushing of a dark woman's chest with the tips of her fingers, reminiscent of a ceremonial act with ochre, while the father talks carelessly about the black woman working at the shop, before Boehme is told by his sister that the black woman is his grandmother.

The pace of the show is deliberate and steady. Boehme brings a changing perception of HIV to some of today's younger gay demographic. In a throwaway he speaks of the young men playing a type of careless Russian roulette, almost wanting to be a part of the positive "club." He describes the earlier gay sex scene, of the dark beats in parks and bars, in visceral detail. He speaks of his quest to find love in equal measure. At one point, with uncertainty, he asks us if he looks all right. He's about to go on a date. It epitomises the overall tone of the show, which is hopeful and surprisingly refreshing.

Prize Fighter Prize Fighter
photo courtesy Belvoir Street Theatre and Sydney Festival 2017

La Boite, Prize Fighter

Prize Fighter's narrative is fast from beginning to end. Really fast, as quick as the interim between a pugilist's battery of blows. The play depicts the fate of a 10-year-old boy, Isa, forced to witness the execution of his family before becoming a child soldier in the war-torn republic of Congo.

Prize Fighter is told in a series of flashbacks as Isa fights in the ring for the crown of Australian heavyweight boxer. Light on their feet, Prize Fighter's five players dance, duck and weave around idyllic childhood memories until crushing blows precipitate memories of horrendous scenes nobody should have had to experience.

All too quickly the gruesome past is dropped and we are back in the ring which we never really leave since all the action happens on, or around an elevated square platform. In the shadows, old truck tyres serve as the peripheries of the jungle, of life outside the safe haven of competitive boxing.

Writer Future D Fidel also features on the final of three Dance Speaks panels along with Jacob Boehme. The panel's chair, Claire Hicks, director of Sydney's Critical Path, asks how the notion of care was considered while making the work. Fidel divulged that he feels it his responsibility to share his country's volatile history in increments through his semi-fictional narrative. He feels too that he has an obligation to other victims not to over-sensationalise the violence by staying with it too long. He eschews what he considers a two-dimensional tactic in favour of revealing the complexity behind the face of this still relatively new wave of immigrants to Australia.

Fidel prefaces his presence on the panel with a comment about being a ring-in, since Prize Fighter had been billed as neither dance nor physical theatre; although he did reveal it was imperative that the actors learn how to box. The exacting physicality performed throughout was a powerful visual metaphor for the enduring will to survive at all costs.

There is an assumption that shows like this are preaching to the converted. I consider myself among the enlightened. News coverage of NSW Australian of the Year Deng Adut as a refugee and former child soldier himself, had appeared as an abstract idea until I saw this show and could imagine myself in his shoes.

Cliff Cardinal, HUFF Cliff Cardinal, HUFF
photo Jamie Williams courtesy Sydney Festival 2017

Native Earth Performing Arts, Huff

Like Blood On the Dance Floor, Cliff Cardinal's Huff is a First Nations work produced by Canada's longest-running Indigenous theatre company, Native Earth Performing Arts. Like Boehme, Cardinal is both writer and solo performer who immediately breaks the fourth wall. From the beginning, we are made complicit.

The lights come up on Cardinal with arms bound behind him. He has a bag tightly taped to his head. We watch it inflate and deflate as he breathes. He addresses us while the seconds count down on his limited oxygen supply. He is in the middle of committing suicide before he changes his mind and asks a woman from the front row to free him. He then hands her the bag. The woman questions the reasoning behind this request, asking if she's keeping it for later. This does not go down well and he offers it to another audience member on the condition that he not relinquish it to Cardinal, even if he begs for it.

Cardinal is Wind, one of three brothers he portrays growing up on an Indian Reservation. An Indian Reservation sounds very much like many of the former Aboriginal Reserves in Australia. When I was a student of NAISDA, we had to be granted permits to enter certain communities. Reserves are isolated places, segregated. Like their North American counterparts, huffing or sniffing solvents by young Australian Aboriginals is a well-documented problem. There are too many hours in the day and not enough activities to fill them, but the relationship to country still remains of paramount importance.

What sets Cardinal's Huff narrative apart is the unseen presence of the Trickster, a shape-shifting spirit who wreaks havoc, creating mischief for the three brothers and their extended family. He could be a metaphor for the battle between conscience and impulse, but to Wind and his people the Trickster is tangible and has a firm hold. Huff is not a romanticised account of cultural belief, but a raw depiction of the ancestral world and its very real relationship to contemporary society.

Searching for comparative similarities in contemporary Australian storytelling I am drawn to the TV series Cleverman, a sci-fi fantasy, but the similarity lies in the work's success in making old knowledges relevant today.

There is a particular humour that is born from the kind of hardship and futility portrayed in Huff which by no means lessens the gravity of the work. I am reminded of Warwick Thornton's film Samson and Delilah. Huff's dark self-effacing comedy is epitomised in the opening description of youngest brother Huff's inability to spell “cat.” He likely suffers foetal alcohol syndrome and is regularly sexually abused by his siblings. Dark humour is also evident in the confrontation with a skunk that marks Wind and Huff with putrid scent in folkloric retribution for burning down an old disused building, inadvertently killing a local fireman in the process. In a classroom, Wind ascribes a traditional Indian name, translated as Ratface, to the teacher. This leads to the boys' dismissal from the school, Huff defecating in his trousers under the humiliating gaze of his peers and the incompetent teacher's labelling him as "irrelevant."

Ironically, it is Huff's need to redeem himself that causes him to tell the truth about the hapless caper that resulted in the fire; a dark momentum takes hold and the play draws to an almost inevitable close.

Cardinal’s performance of his script is virtuosic, leaving little to the imagination in his rendering of multiple characters. We move with him at the mercurial speed of a child and it’s through the logic of a child that we are forced to appreciate the gravity of consequence. We learn that Huff has inadvertantly hanged himself—a suffocation game often played with Wind who was always there to bring him back from the brink. The play ends where it began, as Wind asks for the plastic bag back. The audience member denies him as instructed. No matter, Wind has a spare.


Sydney Festival: Ilbijerri Theatre & Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor, Carriageworks, 21-25; La Boite, Prize Fighter, writer Future Fidel, director Todd McDonald, Belvoir, 6-22 Jan; Native Earth Performing Arts, Huff, writer, performer Cliff Cardinal, director Karin Randoja, Seymour Centre, Sydney, 24-28 Jan

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

© Vicki Van Hout; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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