Giving voice to a generation lost to AIDS

By Robin J. Miller, May 2016

Illustrating resilience, generosity and bravery, The Missing Generation opens our hearts.

Sean Dorsey DanceTHE AIDS CRISIS. For those whose lives were forever changed by it in the 1980s and ’90s, it was a searing, terrifying scourge––and it is by no means over. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that, at the end of 2014, 75,500 Canadians were living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That’s an increase of nearly 10 percent since 2011. Yet for many, AIDS is a mere public health footnote, something that may have been important once, but today, who cares?

Sean Dorsey, a Vancouver-born, San Francisco-based dancer and choreographer, spent two years travelling the US to interview long-time survivors and witnesses of the earliest part of the AIDS epidemic, when it was cutting down thousands of gay and bisexual men and transgender women every day. He talked to people still living with the virus more than 30 years later, to those who lost family, friends and lovers, and to those who fought the political establishment to build the first supports for people with HIV/AIDS. 

“I had a lot of emotional trepidation before the interviews,” says Dorsey. “I knew I was leaping off a cliff into grief and loss and all sorts of emotions most of us try to avoid. I was steeling myself for a difficult process, but the very first person I talked to walked in to our interview––the only word I can use is jubilant––with a lot of sassiness, too. It surprised me, but it also reminded me that along with staggering loss and death and pain there is also humour and warmth.”

What surprised Dorsey even more, though, was discovering that so many younger people are shockingly ignorant of the devastation AIDS wrought on an entire generation.

“I was struck about how little even the most passionate, well-versed LGBT activists know about the virus and the disease and that time,” says Dorsey. “There’s a staggering level of ignorance. So when people come now to see The Missing Generation, they are really cracked open by learning about the amount of terror and death and grief this one disease caused.”

But Dorsey’s 65-minute dance-theatre performance, coming this July to the University of Victoria during Pride Week, is not all about tragedy and despair, he says. It is also about “the incredible resilience of people with the virus, the incredible generosity of people who cared for each other, and the bravery of those who took to the streets––literally laid down in the streets––to get the government to step up and respond.”

To create The Missing Generation, Dorsey spent nearly 500 hours listening to his recorded interviews, eventually weaving the voices of survivors into 17 separate sections and combining them with original music composed specifically to suit each section. Together, voices and music form an intricate soundscape for four dancers who range in age from their 20s to 50s. The oldest, 53-year-old Brian Fisher, also serves as the central narrator, telling his own stories about the early days of the crisis in a series of monologues addressed directly to the audience. Fisher was a young, aspiring dancer from Maine who arrived in Manhattan just one week before the New York Times announced that a “mysterious cancer” was killing gay men. While dancing on Broadway, he lost friends and colleagues almost daily.

What many people don’t know, says Dorsey, “is how many trans women died during that time” in addition to gay and bisexual men. Transgender himself, he knows how important this story in particular is to tell. While his family has always been supportive, “So many of us were, in that time, and still are, excommunicated from our birth families. When our circle of friends die––some people lost every single one of them––it’s like losing another family.”

Now 43, Dorsey came to dance late, in his 20s, largely because there was no model for someone like him within the dance world, as either a professional dancer or a choreographer. In the 11 years since he founded his own dance company in California, he has won four Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, been named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch,” and received major support and commissions from such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Dance Project. He is also the founder and artistic director of Fresh Meat Productions, which creates, presents and tours multidisciplinary transgender arts programs in San Francisco.

While Dorsey believes in the importance of LGBT people understanding their own history, he does not believe The Missing Generation is just for an LGBT audience. “Lots of non-LGBT people come to the show because they love dance or they love theatre, and this combines both. Loss and grief are also universal. Everyone is affected by them,” he says. “And there are many non-LGBT people who understand that the struggle for basic human rights continues––look at the hateful trans-phobic bathroom bills across the US right now––and they are really hungry to learn more and be wonderful strong allies. They know that it behooves us all to open our hearts.”

In addition, says Dorsey, The Missing Generation “is deeply human and very accessible. It’s not a strident, academic piece or pure abstract dance. So many people find modern dance difficult or unappealing, but this is clearly about something and accessible. It is full-throttle dance combined with intimate story-telling, People ‘get’ it; they feel it deeply.” 

So far the response, from the work’s première in 2015 to its current two-year, 20-city tour, has been good. At talk-backs after each performance, “where just about everyone stays around,” says Dorsey, “we’ve had so much positive feedback. We’ve been able to see and hear how people connect to the work. It’s technically beautiful, and truly moving. I am really proud of the work, and the impact of it on the people who see it.”

 

The Missing Generation will be performed at the University Centre Farquhar Auditorium on July 8 at 8 pm. The event is part of Pride Week, as well as a fundraiser for the new Transgender Research Chair and Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria. Tickets can be purchased at https://tickets.uvic.ca.

Robin J. Miller writes for national and international arts publications, and for business and government clients across Canada.