★★★★☆ Heroic honesty draws out the relatable in this powerful story of sexuality and identity.

Arts House, North Melbourne
June 1, 2016

Australia is a country haunted by a history of discrimination, both psychologically and legislatively. The decimation of indigenous culture in the wake of white settlement is an indelible stain on this nation’s past, with the awful shame of the stolen generation and the White Australia policy still within living memory. The LGBT community has similar scars that speak of a long and, in some respects, ongoing history of inequality in Australia. Homosexuality and “sodomy” were officially criminalised until 1994 and even though this country can claim to be more enlightened and inclusive today, the inexplicable argument against marriage equality for same-sex couples reveals the enduring legacy of antiquated values that still persist in the heart of Government.

But just because a segment of society experiences discrimination doesn’t mean it is incapable of prejudice itself. Minorities within minorities are faced with multi-leveled rejection, but the pariah at the centre of Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Blood on the Dance Floor finds himself at the epicentre of a particularly rare intersection of stigmas. Written and performed by Jacob Boehme, this autobiographical dance-theatre memoir explores the complexities of living with HIV in Australia as both a gay and Aboriginal man.

(photo: Bryony Jackson )

It would be easy for a piece unpicking such a bleak subject matter to collapse under the weight of its own emotional gravity, but Boehme has achieved an extremely well-judged equilibrium in the tone of this work. Channelling the campy flamboyance of an ageing drag queen, dressed in a faded silk kimono and dangling costume jewellery earrings, Boehme welcomes the audience as they enter the auditorium. Mwah-mwah air kisses, the odd cheeky pat on the bum or a saucy gag sends giggles rippling through the stalls. There is no formality or pretension – even the first scripted line is throw-away schtick – but the comedy that percolates throughout this one-man show is far from glib. By sharing these anecdotes in the light, unselfconscious gay vernacular, Boehme amplifies the authenticity of these experiences, making them powerfully relatable.

As we move through the piece, Boehme reveals himself as a social polyglot. He inhabits his father, speaking with the colloquialisms of his indigenous upbringing. Director Isaac Drandic has ensured a consistent level of clarity in the shifting characterisations with a clean, uncomplicated control of the stage.

These two seemingly remote hemispheres of Boehme’s cultural identity meet via one recurring symbol. Blood is evoked both metaphorically and literally as a responsibility and a danger; a point of pride and yet a reminder of deep, desperate regret. Pressure to preserve and further the bloodline of his family is not only confronted by his sexuality, but also the medical reality of his infection. Simultaneously the truth of his HIV status leaves him on the fringes of the gay community, unable to find the soothing comfort that honest intimacy would bring.

Boehme’s narrative is engaging on its own, but the use of other technical elements adds a highly sophisticated level of depth to the storytelling. Keith Deverell’s videography paired with James Henry’s spatially-conceived sound design offer a conduit to the inner conflict of this character. Oppressive scale and volume are used to drive a sense of the inescapable, conjuring the relentless anxieties of Boehme’s uncertain future and the deafening voices of his past.

(photo: Bryony Jackson )

Dance interludes, choreographed by Mariaa Randall, punctuate this study of sexuality, society and segregation, momentarily shifting our perspective from the figurative into the abstract. The lexicon of gestures are simple yet symbolic; a finger traces the course of a vein, or a percussive stamp references an indigenous mode of movement. Occasionally the relationship between the choreography and theatre seems tenuous, and Boehme’s execution could benefit from being less deliberate, but largely the push-pull of mediums in this work are carefully balanced.

Blood on the Dance Floor is an impressive accomplishment on many levels. Even though it’s a brand new piece of theatre, it’s already well proportioned and beautifully crafted, but perhaps most importantly, it tells a story that is rarely heard in a way that is accessible and, ultimately, affirming. There is a tangible sense of catharsis that radiates from Boehme at the conclusion of the production, revealing something truly touching: despite his unique combination of personal struggles, Boehme is, first and foremost, a fellow human. His hopes and fears – a longing for love; a sense of mortality; a need for forgiveness; an aspirational search for something better – are the same as ours. The fact that we can see our own lives reflected in the particulars of Boehme’s makes the heroic honesty of his story all the more astonishing.

Ilbijerri Theatre Company presents Blood on the Dance Floor, until June 5.