By Tim Miller
David Gere’s extraordinary new book “How To Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS” (published this month by University of Wisconsin Press) is a huge contribution toward understanding AIDS, gay identity and cultural expression over the last two decades. Gere, a well-known dance critic in San Francisco in the 80s and now a respected professor at UCLA, boldly expands the parameters of choreography to look at not only theatrical dances but also the direct action street protests conceived by ACT-UP, the NAMES Project AIDS quilt, and even funerals. All of these expressions occupy a space where dance, protest, and profound grief become essentially indistinguishable. Gere’s portrait of gay male choreographers struggling to cope with AIDS and its meanings is heart-breaking in both its breadth and intimacy. Gere’s unflinching and nuanced exploration of gay male embodiment as lives in the performed moment, sexual expression and illness is thrilling in its stripped-bare honesty.
“This is the moment when the performer takes a last breath before stepping onto the stage or glances at his fellow protesters to drink a draft of galvanizing solidarity. This is a moment ripe with expectation, sensuality and bodily possibility, distinguishable from every other type of bodily activity that has preceded or will follow in the history of the United States,” he writes.
With “How To Make Dances in an Epidemic” – the title an homage to the ground-breaking 1983 pamphlet How To Have Sex in an Epidemic in which Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen grappled with finding a sex-positive way to be queer in the horrors of early 80s AIDS – David Gere has crafted a moving and joyous act of memory and embodied act. I recently spoke with Gere about the choreography, sexuality and gay men’s bodies that he explores in this remarkable book.
BTL: There is, of course, a charged poignancy to using dance, the most ephemeral art, to chart the gaping empty space left by HIV-AIDS. Even as these dances disappear after they are performed, so did many of the choreographers and dancers who we lost to AIDS. How did this connection fuel your writing of “How To Make Dances in an Epidemic?”
David Gere: Sometimes I felt as though I were trying to cup water and keep it from dripping out of my hands. The disappearance of gay men whose dances I have seen and loved is so poignant. But as I worked on the book I really felt a determination to describe these dances as fully and as vividly as I could, so that they could remain alive. Even if the people who made them were dead.
I mean, if you’re Balanchine, and you’re working in a fully sanctioned art form like ballet, you can count on your acolytes to keep your work alive. But if you are an openly gay man who choreographs a piece on the street, in a pink body bag, as an AIDS protest – I’m thinking of Paul Diaz’s “One AIDS Death” – chances are that the work disappears when you stop performing it. Even if the piece is extraordinary and accomplishes big things.
I know I’m working against the mold here, because one of the big arguments used to denigrate dances made in response to AIDS is that they aren’t “masterpieces.” But to me that’s bullshit. You don’t know what a masterpiece is until a couple of generations have passed. So I go for a more current definition: Did the piece catalyze action? Did it help us get new treatments through the pipeline? Did it cause a shift in stigma and discrimination? And was it beautiful? I’m most interested in the place where aesthetic beauty and action meet.
BTL: Your embrace of the full continuum of creative, political and sexual expression is really powerful in “How To Make Dances in an Epidemic.” How did you chart these links between these different ways gay men claim space?
DG: Probably only someone as obsessive as I am would do it this way, but I started by writing down every memory that stayed with me from the 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of the epidemic. I moved to San Francisco in 1985 and left for Los Angeles in 1993, so I treated my own life as an archive. I pulled all the reviews I had written of dances that had anything to do with HIV. I unearthed notes – sadly, I didn’t keep a journal during those years – but I kept notes from many performances I had seen but never written about for a newspaper. And then I started writing choreographers all over the country to ask if they would share their memories, and videotapes, with me.
What I ended up with was a fairly exhaustive list of dances that had dealt with HIV, from the slow movement of Lar Lubovitch’s “Concerto 622”, which became something of an AIDS anthem in the late 80s, to Joe Goode’s “Remembering the Pool at the Best Western,” in which Joe gets visited by the ghost of his dead friend. Most of these I couldn’t fit into my book, but they did end up being featured in a web-based survey of choreography and HIV that I did for the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS (artistswithaids.org).
More than the dances themselves, though, I tried to get at the sense of urgency and intensity that generated them. I mean, think of it: How often does someone make a work of art not because they want to make something pretty, but because they need to in order to save their lives?
BTL: There is such a forthright sexual honesty in the book. The examinations of the performance and sexual ritual spaces created by Keith Hennessy and Jim Self were particularly charged. What role do these experiential ritual performances serve in community?
DG: I felt especially drawn to Keith’s and Jim’s performances because these two men are so transgressive, so spiritual, and so visionary, all at the same time. Rachel Kaplan, who is a brilliant and radical artist herself, was one of the few people who wrote about Keith’s “Saliva” when he performed it under a freeway overpass in San Francisco in 1988. Other critics wouldn’t think of showing up, or if they did their papers wouldn’t publish a description of Keith stripping naked and smearing his body with a bowl of spit collected straight from the mouths of his audience members. I mean, puh-leez, the concept may be titillating, but not in a family newspaper. Likewise, even though several mainstream dance writers paid attention to Jim’s “Sanctuary,” they very coyly avoided any detailed discussion of the erotic massage, to orgasm, that was the literal climax of the piece.
To me, that was a major omission that I was determined to redress in my book. I wanted the sex back, and the rituals of healing, too. You know, when everybody talks now about a concern with “moral issues” having turned the electorate against us, I want to scream. Nobody could be more concerned than Keith and Jim are about morality and spirituality. Keith smeared that spit on his body to make us stop being afraid of body fluids. And Jim, he was trying to bottle sex and pleasure as an elixir that could heal. These guys are our priests. I wanted to honor their sense of divinity in the book.
BTL: In addition to the important elegiac community projects like the AIDS Quilt whose unfurling was such an amazing dance your unflinching look at funerals and even political manifestation with the bodies of people who had died from AIDS was revelatory. What did you learn from these, as one chapter is titled, “Corpses and Ghosts?”
DG: I know I’m not the only gay man in the United States who has become obsessed with matters of life and death on account of AIDS. In 1988, my friend Joah Lowe visited me in the sweetest way, two days after he died. A Christmas card propped up on my mantel started to beep, and when I opened it the beep turned into Bing Crosby singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Trust me, I’m not going woo-woo on you, and I’m not even saying Joah was responsible for Bing’s voice. There was a little music box in the card, after all. But it was such a weird occurrence that the idea of Joah’s visiting me as a ghost seemed unavoidable to me then, as it does now. Meanwhile I had Joah’s ashes in a cardboard box on my side table. The separation of body and spirit – how weird can it get?
So this led me to think a lot about bodies and spirits, corpses and ghosts, and to pay attention to the way that other gay men were dealing with these questions in their choreography, just as Tony Kushner had in “Angels in America.” Tracy Rhoades made his “Requiem” to honor his dead lover, and when I see the piece now, with his beautiful, lithe body configured like a saint, I can’t help feeling that he made it for himself, too. (He died in 1993.)
Similarly, Joe Goode’s “Remembering the Pool,” with the visitation from his dead friend, is a big favorite of mine, especially because the dead friend is invited into the piece by an angel who looks like a drag version of Marie Antoinette. She’s hilarious. But what she says is also very, very deep. I mean, what happens to our friends when they die, that’s the big question, right? And what I realized in the process of watching all these dances is that gay men are some of the most deeply spiritual beings on the planet. Who else could even attempt to answer these questions?
BTL: Your powerful embrace of the creativity and energies of gay male embodiment even extends to yourself as the writer’s body becomes implicated and engaged. What was the experience like of writing this remarkable book?
DG: You must be talking about the part toward the end of the book when I go into a reverie – which I hope isn’t self-indulgent – about how all our bodies are implicated in AIDS, regardless of our sero status. We bear the unwarranted stigma of AIDS simply because we are gay. We bear the loss of friends and lovers in our marrow. We ache in deep muscle memory.
What happened, quite literally, when I was near the end of writing the book, was that I contracted a horrible fever. I was on deadline, in my office at UCLA, after midnight, and I was quivering. Before I knew it I was on the floor, like Kushner’s Pryor Walter, and I felt that the ceiling was about to open up. And what I had was a vision of my people, my friends, my lovers, my gay brethren, all suffering like I was at that moment, only worse. And something cleaved in me, it just broke open, and what I got was this incredible sense of the union of spirituality and sex, of ghostliness and hot sweaty bodies, of priests and assholes, and the sense that this was what dances made in this epidemic are all about. Gay culture, evanescent.