AIDS has dimmed some of the brightest lights of the dance world: Rudolf Nureyev, Michael Bennett, Robert Joffrey, Alvin Ailey, and Willi Ninja, just to name a few. In the wake of such loss, how can a choreographer turn his own grief into inspiration and call audiences into action?
When veteran dancer and Philadelphia native Zane Booker returned home from a decade performing in Europe, the culture shock opened his eyes to how American dance companies don't often integrate their art with activism and politics like their European counterparts. He set out to create a tribute concert to the men from the Philadelphia Dance Company who had died of AIDS. The result was the birth of his own dance company -- Smoke, Lilies, and Jade, a multimedia performing arts group whose core mission is to use artistic expression to raise awareness about HIV.
Trained at Philadanco, as the Philly company is known, Booker counts classical and contemporary ballet as major influences but also his time as a Broadway dancer, not to mention years spent dancing in the clubs. His company's performances are thus a blend of styles, with spoken-word poetry added to help get his message across. They unapologetically explore issues of race and sexuality.
HIV-negative himself, Booker says he's moved to take action by the many people in his life who are living with the virus. Also, as a professor of dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he hopes to inspire the young people in his charge to remember the ever-present realities of the disease.
"This is my way of keeping it in their minds," he says, "and also honoring those people that passed away. Through dance, you get a visceral communication about the subject matter. Our work really instigates conversation."
"Zane does these performances that are so in-your-face," says SLJ board member Terrence Gore, an HIV-positive former dancer. "I might see one person walk out, but I might see 10 people who are in awe: Oh, I did not know that. I did not know that one could live with the disease, that it's not necessarily a death sentence, that one can be positive and live a healthy life."
Booker hopes to grow his fledgling company in the coming years by presenting its message at everything from health conferences to gay pride events and dance clubs.