BalletLab choreographer Phillip Adams teams up with artist Andrew Hazewinkel to interpret the place of HIV in the Australian psyche
"In your life, what object do you feel best represents your relationship with HIV?" asks Phillip Adams, choreographer and artistic director of trailblazing contemporary dance outfit BalletLab.
Together with visual artist Andrew Hazewinkel, Adams is launching an ambitious, large-scale multi-form performance project which explores the changing face of HIV in the Australian cultural imagination.
While the project combines choreography, spoken word, video and various installation pieces, at its heart are the personal stories of more than 50 volunteers – positive, negative, young, old, gay, straight, male, female – about their encounters with the virus.
"The more I engage with the participants, the less interested I am in spectacle," says Adams. It's a significant shift for a choreographer more often associated with pageantry and extravagance. "I feel like Andrew and I are ambassadorial. We are facilitators, assisting these people who would never otherwise have the chance to perform... and I'm not sure that's the word–"
"Enact," suggests Hazewinkel.
"Yes, enact a story that is important to them."
For Hazewinkel and Adams, the public performance is not the only – or even the most important – outcome of the project.
"For the participants," says Hazewinkel, "every step of the process is another opportunity. It's a little bit like a social sculpture: together we create a form, which is a way of telling stories, and then the broader community engages that form and the whole thing evolves."
This idea of a created form begins with something they call "the materiality of HIV". That is, how can we meaningfully embody the virus and its broader impact in a material object? To this end, each of the volunteers has contributed an object that represents their personal relationship with HIV, whether it's a notebook or soft toy, an ABBA CD or tea towels. According to Adams, these will then be distributed to audience members in the weeks leading up to the performance.
"Two weeks before the performance, I make a series of calls," he explains. "Hi, my name's Phillip, I'm the artistic director of the company. You'll be receiving a parcel in the mail tomorrow. In that will be an object and some instructions, and on the night of the performance, we'd like you to bring that object along to the show."
It's a daring approach to a subject which, at least in Australia, is seen by artists as something of a blind alley. But, as Adams says, "What's important is not what I want to say about HIV; it's what you want to say about it."