About AIDS Dance: Remembrance as a Performative Process
October 25, 2016
by Alex Fialho
Neil Greenberg began his evening for Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found with a dance and a list. Between a moving solo consisting of material drawn from his Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994) and The Disco Project (1995), Greenberg walked to a computer and, with his “signature use of projected words,” typed nineteen names—Peter Hujar, Frank Maya, John Bernd, and Ron Vawter among them—that read prominently across the wall at St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. In the context of Platform 2016: Lost and Found, Danspace Project’s unprecedented performance and conversation-based exploration of the historical and ongoing impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis on dance and performance communities in New York City and beyond, the steadily growing list of Greenberg’s projection read with a powerful resonance. Viewers with an awareness of New York City circles in the 1980s and ‘90s perhaps gathered that this was a list of those lost to AIDS, a point later confirmed by Greenberg: the projected names, written by Greenberg in three segments, created a personal, incomplete list of those who died before, during and after the creation of Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS-Dance, the first work Greenberg made after his brother Jon passed from AIDS, and the work in which Greenberg publically disclosed his own HIV+ status. As Greenberg typed various names, audience members reacted with audible acknowledgements, affirmations of being touched by the multiple presences that Greenberg was bringing into the space. This projected list of names, growing steadily over the course of Greenberg’s performance, hung over his dance as a gesture pointing to both an archive of feelings informing the work as well as the scale of loss in the wake of AIDS.
Greenberg’s performative evoking of those lost called to mind a cogent point made a week prior by New Museum curator Travis Chamberlain at the Lost and Found catalogue preview, when he asked us to consider “remembering and retrieval as a performative process.” Leafing through ephemera of an artist no longer with us in an archive; reconstructing or reimagining their performances for contemporary recreations; contending with their life narrative as inspiration for new work; conjuring their presence through video of a performance in which they took part; or projecting a list of names of those lost are all performative forms of recovering, retrieving, remembering, celebrating, paying tribute to—finding—the so many lost too soon from the AIDS pandemic. In this vein, attempting to “recover the loss of a generation of mentors, role models, and muses” is one of the central charges of Platform 2016: Lost and Found, inspiringly co-curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls and programmed by the stalwart Danspace staff. The possibilities inherent in performative processes to exist in the present as lively remembrances is the potential strength of this Platform. And Danspace Project, as a longstanding hub of performance-based work, feels uniquely positioned as the context for these performative recalls and responses. Multiple moments from Platform 2016: Lost and Found opening events made this readily apparent:
At the New Museum, Julie Tolentino’s reading from her catalogue contribution Tracing A.L. poetically marked the loss of her dear friend dancer Anthony Ledesma. Tolentino’s performance reached back to Lesdesma, as she read:
“A.L. arrived (here) as a dancer in eighty-nine, ninety
Ran these short-lived streets as a skinny twenty-five filled with
Eros Desire Delusion Dreams
before his dancing,
or (any) audition crystalized
Never shared his score.
Didn’t amend, nor construct
Left no vhs.
Never saw your (body or) work, Reader”
Without many extant remains from Ledesma’s life and dancing, lost to the unrelenting intensity of HIV/AIDS, Tolentino’s reading stood in the place of Ledesma’s “never-touch,” “reaching back towards his body” in an ephemeral gesture of longing that rhymed with the lost trace of Ledesma’s life itself. Ledesma’s archive may not have a physical presence, a lack particularly noteworthy when attempting to recover narratives of communities of color, but his story remained present (“¡presente!,” as read Tolentino’s presentation) through Tolentino’s performative recall.
On the other end of the spectrum, newly created, thoroughly researched dossier archives are the inspiration for a particularly engaging element of Platform 2016: Lost and Found: “Life Drawing” performances as commissioned responses for a current generation of performance-based artists to consider the legacies of artists gone too soon – Mariana Valencia on Assotto Saint (1957–1994), Raja Feather Kelly on Ethyl Eichelberger (1945–1990), Katy Pyle on Greer Lankton (1958–1996) and Narcissister on Alvin Ailey (1931–1989). Feather Kelly celebrated Ethyl Eichelberger’s legendary drag personas with rousing renditions of Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, among other tracks, in a performance replete with outfit changes and sparkling pomp. As cheers echoed in the Parish Hall in response to Feather Kelly hitting a particularly difficult note, I found myself wanting to yell “Yesss Ethyl!,” supporting Feather Kelly’s engagement with Eichelberger’s legacy by insinuating that Feather Kelly was so strongly resonating with Ethyl that he was embodying her in performance to the extent that he could be called Ethyl’s name. In that moment, the power of the “Life Drawing” performances to layer and enliven the lost artists struck a chord.
Mariana Valencia, in her performance presentation for/to/on Assotto Saint, combined ritual dance forms from Belize with personal reflection to conjure Saint:
“I wonder what I’ll be like after I’ve met those places,
Because I’m full after meeting you.
After meeting you, my ghost in the room.
Bringing air to your words, my ghost in the room.”
In “meeting” these artists through their dossier archives in order to create new work, each contemporary “Life Drawing” response brings legacies from the page to the stage. Saint’s plays and writing—his words—may only exist now in written form, but it is in bringing air to these words, in performatively embodying them and giving them voice and presence, that those lost like Saint can continue to hold space in our contemporary imagination. And after a busy week full of engaging events, it feels as if a performative context like Platform 2016: Lost and Found is how these stories may best be remembered and (re)told.
* I dedicate this and all of my responses as writer-in-residence for Danspace’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found to the late Buzz Bense, who passed away on November 19, 2016; coincidentally, the final day of Platform 2016: Lost and Found. Buzz was an ardent activist, seasoned performer and sex-positive force in San Francisco throughout the ongoing AIDS crisis. He has been the single most influential gay mentor in my life, and working closely with Buzz to co-curate the exhibition “SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters” with Dorian Katz at the Center for Sex & Culture in 2013 was where I found my voice in relationship to writing about HIV/AIDS. If it weren’t for Buzz, I don’t think that any of my Danspace responses as writer-in-residence, or my work at Visual AIDS for that matter, would have happened. I am deeply grateful for his presence and impact on my life, and I miss him dearly already. [Alex Fialho]
As part of our online Journal, Danspace Project has invited artists, curators, scholars, historians and others in our community to contribute entries as Writers in Residence and guest Respondents. Each contributor has been offered an open invitation to respond to work presented by Danspace Project; writings gathered here do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Danspace Project, its artists, staff, or Board of Directors.