In How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS, David Gere sketches only the most basic recipe for an AIDS dance—take gay male eros and add a heavy dose of mourning—before launching a sophisticated analysis of the substantial oeuvre developed by U.S.-based gay male choreographers and activists in response to the epidemic during the final decades of the 20th century. For these artists, Gere writes, “motion equals action and action equals life,” and the line between art and activism effectively dissolved in the face of governmental inaction. Gere deftly illuminates two dozen embodied performance events—from concert dance to memorials, benefits, funerals, ACT UP die-ins, and the unfurling of the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt on Washington’s National Mall—by situating them within the political circumstances to which they responded. It’s an archive Gere knows well, having covered much of the work as a dance critic for San Francisco gay and straight newspapers from 1985 to 1994.
While the groundbreaking volume reflects a deep intellectual inquiry into the host of aesthetic and political tactics artists developed, from corporeal fetishization and erotic melancholia to public insurgency, metaphysical camp, and transcendent sexual healing rituals, Gere’s lively, evocative prose and eye for the telling detail also make it a highly enjoyable read. A 1991 performance by San Francisco’s High Risk Group in which the audience had to step over chalked body outlines to enter the theater, for example, gives him pause: “When the door to the studio finally swings shut, it is as if the dead have been left behind, inconsolably.” With the evisceration of prevention programs under the current administration and the unhindered worldwide spread of AIDS, this may prove to be just a first volume for Gere, who charts a new path for the dance scholar as impassioned activist.
“The Remember Project,” a 12-hour celebration to benefit Dancers Responding to AIDS, plays Saturday at the Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church.