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David Gere, How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004, $24.95, 341 pages, 0-299-20084-1)—Chris Bell, Nottingham Trent University


Dances are commonly viewed as a concatenation of aesthetic effects—as beautiful, visually striking, structurally cogent, well crafted—or as vehicles for the evocation of sentiment, measured by the flush of heightened emotion that they are capable of exciting in their viewers. But with and through their aesthetic effects, dances also bear a politics, which is to say that audiences may view choreographic action in two ways at once: both as critique and as art, fused and inseparable. [140]


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, David Gere reported on AIDS-themed dance performances in a variety of newspapers and journals in the San Francisco Bay Area. This first-hand knowledge gave rise to Gere’s doctoral dissertation which, in turn, inspired this text. In How to Make Dances in an Epidemic, Gere analyzes sixteen choreography-infused performances. Immediately, this calls to mind traditional performances such as theatrical dance. That kind of performance is included here; however, Gere does not limit his analysis to it. Instead, he critiques traditional performances as well as less-traditional forms e.g., protests, memorial services, and a funeral, all of which, as he asserts, are infused with choreographic elements. In doing so, he underscores the various ways in which AIDS has redefined dance. Indeed, AIDS brings the politics embedded in dance to the forefront, as the epigraph to this review suggests. As he explains, “each dance [examined in the text] fulfilled even the most conservative notions of what choreography ought to be, from the astute arrangement of bodies in space to the intelligent ordering of form in physical movement” [8].

Consider Gere’s reading of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the monument to human loss and suffering that is constructed of individual hand-sewn panels. He details the choreographic underpinnings of Quilt displays based on his observations at the largest display ever, in 1996 on the Capitol Mall in Washington D.C. Gere provides details of the strategically-colored clothing Quilt monitors wear, their positioning alongside each Quilt block, as well as the slow, methodical [read: choreographed] unfolding of the blocks that resembles the opening of a lotus blossom. He surmises that the Quilt was intended as a “warm, fuzzy symbol of grieving” [5]. Tellingly, in the very next sentence, Gere explains that the dimensions of each Quilt panel approximate that of a human grave. Thus, while the Quilt may be a “warm, fuzzy” [read: safe] symbol of grieving, it also retains a decisive political slant. The display in Washington D.C. becomes all the more urgent in that tens of thousands of grave-like Quilt panels are in close proximity to the lawmakers working in the Capitol buildings as well as to the President in the White House nearby.

Describing the first Quilt display on the Capitol Mall in 1987, Gere observes: “The quilt itself was an overwhelming signification of the vast number of people who had died of AIDS-related causes and who were loved sufficiently that someone cared to make a memorial” [6]. The formulation “loved sufficiently” strikes this reviewer as somewhat problematic: What does it mean to love someone sufficiently? Is the fact that the individual has been memorialized in the Quilt evidence on its own accord? If so, this is a troubling definition in light of the fact that, as Gere does not mention, only a fraction of individuals who have died from AIDS in the US are memorialized in the Quilt.

The troubling characterization of individuals being “loved sufficiently” is augmented by an even more troubling conception Gere reveals about AIDS. At different points in the text, he writes “the peak of the epidemic [was 1988]” and “through the late 1980s and early 1990s, when AIDS deaths in the US were approaching their grisly peak” (4 and 40 respectively). These statements are optimistic at best and gravely presumptuous at worst. While the late 1980s and early 1990s was most certainly a period wherein numerous deaths from AIDS-related complications occurred, it is important to bear in mind that the number of yearly HIV diagnoses in the US has not changed much since 1996. Approximately 40,000 individuals have been diagnosed each year for the last ten years. While anti-retrovirals and protease inhibitors have improved the quality of life for those individuals fortunate enough to acquire them, the fact is that not everyone can access them. Moreover, even if an individual does acquire them, the drugs do not cure HIV or AIDS. Eventually, these 40,000 infected individuals—400,000, nearly half a million, in the US alone over the course of the last decade—will die. Thus, Gere’s assertion of 1988, or, more broadly, the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the “peak” of the AIDS epidemic presumes too much. Moreover, Gere points to the troubling nature of that assertion late in the text when he claims, “middle-aged white men, the same white men who in the 1980s had heeded calls for safer sex and survived, are now seroconverting [becoming HIV-positive] in rising numbers” [264]. The history of AIDS is clear: large numbers of individuals diagnosed with HIV will, eventually, die of HIV-related complications. Therefore, the peak of the epidemic may not have been reached yet.

How to Make Dances in an Epidemic is at its best when Gere avoids making problematic pronouncements about the quality of love an individual generates or speculative predictions about AIDS incidences and prevalence and, instead, focuses on the politically-inspired and infused choreography that has been created in response to the AIDS crisis. He offers, for instance, a powerful reading of the funeral of Jon Greenberg, an AIDS activist [160-168]. While he focuses on the choreographic movements of the mourners carrying Greenberg’s casket through the streets of New York’s East Village, he also draws attention to the [political] fact that they are marching without a [state-sanctioned] permit. The mourners, mostly gay men, are re-fashioning [hetero]normative mourning practices in an effort to fulfill their own needs. As Gere elucidates:

There is a tradition in the United States of giving the rituals of the dead over to designated ritual celebrants—priests or pastors or rabbis or imams—but gay men have taken this final ritual into their own hand, fashioning it as a highly charged and highly fetishistic reaffirmation of gayness and the loved object, including practices that serve to reconjure and revitalize the presence of the dead object in quasi-corporeal form. The AIDS funeral encompasses as many variations as does the art song or the pas de deux or the elegiac poem. From the lavish funeral sprays of stunning flowers and high-powered eulogies to the modest outdoor ceremony at which mourners speak their own words of grief and strew the loved one’s ashes, from elaborate rituals to stripped-down remembrances, gay men have turned the memorial service into a vibrant art form. Inherent in all these memorial variations is a belief in desire, in homosexual love and homosexual practices, and in the necessity of vividly conjuring the dead even while facing the irreversibility of death. [106]

AIDS choreography breaks rules. It is an unscripted form of dance, made more urgent it its lack of capitulation to officially authorized strictures. AIDS choreography, in most instances, is focused on remembering the person who has died from AIDS. The US government, famously, did very little to prevent those deaths; thus, AIDS choreography, as demonstrated in Jon Greenberg’s funeral, does little to honor the strictures of governmental agencies.

In addition, the US government was not the only entity that failed HIV-positive and AIDS-infected individuals. Gere offers the case in point of Dance Magazine, “the major popular journal for the dance field [in which] the number of male obituaries more than doubled from 1981 to 1988, in response to which the magazine ceased publishing obituaries altogether for five months in 1989” [97-98]. There are two kinds of death in evidence here: the literal death [which was, in many instances, responded to with silence by governmental power-brokers] as well as the social death [which is evidenced in the decision by Dance Magazine to ignore the, presumably AIDS-related, deaths of members of its audience]. In Gere’s estimation, these deaths give rise to melancholia. He writes:

What if the subject […] grieves not just a single person but the very “ideal” of an entire culture, with its own social and sexual practices? Or what if, by reason of his fear for his own life and his anger at political and cultural forces that failed to prevent the death of the loved object […] he cannot, will not, return to “normal”? Then he is subject to what Freud would call melancholia, an extreme state of mourning that he characterizes as a wound that will not heal. [101]

Gere takes this idea of the “wound that will not heal” and applies it to his reading of Tracy Rhoades’s Requiem, a danced dirge to his lover who died of AIDS. He invokes the idea once more in his interpretation of “Untitled,” a well-known danced tribute by Bill T. Jones that includes a holographic cameo by his dead lover Arnie Zane. What Gere tells the reader in How to Make Dances in an Epidemic is that the kinds of dances made in the epidemic are steeped not just in politics but a sense of irrecoverable loss. That loss is not limited to the loss of one individual. It extends to the loss of consideration and compassion that allowed that individual—and countless others—to die.

As mentioned earlier, Gere is a dance critic whose work dates back to the mid 1980s, a time when AIDS had reached full entrenchment in dance cultures. His knowledge of dance cultures informs this text considerably. There are several memorably well-phrased passages in which Gere describes the physiological nature of dance, underscoring how the physicality of dance cultures had the potential to deconstruct the identity politics rooted in mainstream cultures:

In the course of a normal workday, dancers might […] share bloodied shoes, tend one another’s wounds and abrasions, and routinely participate in choreographed or improvised actions that could result in fingernail scratches or more serious blood-spilling collisions. […] These dancing bodies were intimately connected, intertwined, soaked in each other’s fluids. What is more, dancers were, at this galvanizing moment in the history of sexuality in the US, taking part in an uncomfortably intimate physical interchange, a blurring of the boundaries between one body and another, invoking fears of gender confusion and of sexuality more generally. [42]

Another memorable passage is the extended one in which he parses out the concepts of tumescence and exudation [48-51]. In the former, the body swells in response to the level of energy produced by the act of dancing. The latter is the release of bodily fluids—spit, blood, sweat—in response to the former. While Gere makes it a point to analyze how all three of these fluids were/are negotiated in dance cultures affected by AIDS, I find it troubling that he never addresses tears, the bodily fluid produced when individuals cry. Doing so, I contend, would have been an ideal bridge between his discussions of physiology and melancholia.

How to Make Dances in an Epidemic has instances, as seen in the above paragraphs, of astute, thought-provoking analysis. Unfortunately, the text also has its share of head-wagging moments. Many of the latter are a direct result of Gere’s word choices. For instance, he includes an unconvincing argument based on the idea of “ghosts”: “[The ghost] might, for example, manifest as invisible and mute, just efficacious enough in worldly terms to be capable of nudging open a musical greeting card” [200]. He continues: “In my experience almost every gay man has such a [ghost] story and will share it if gently prodded” [196]. What Gere is drawing light to is how gay men are haunted by the memories of departed loved ones. That might be a convincing argument, but there can be no denying the sense that he allows his sentimentality to take over, as seen in the above description of the ghost opening the musical [!] greeting card. Another instance of Gere’s unfortunate word choices occurs in his description of a dance performed by Dudley Williams during the choreographer Alvin Ailey’s funeral. Gere notes that Williams resembles “[disco singer] Sylvester in a unitard,” an unwelcome comparison given the fact that Sylvester died from AIDS around the same time as Ailey [122]. Yet another instance of an unfortunate word choice comes from Gere’s interpretation of Phillip Brian Harper’s well-known essay on Max Robinson. In that essay, including the parts that Gere excerpts in his text, Harper discusses “African American communities” plural. Without giving any reasons for the word choice, Gere uses the singular form “African American community” [118].

Other curious word choices involve issues that Gere omits. During a discussion of AIDS high-risk groups, he lists “gay men, intravenous drug users, and, for a brief period in the mid-1980s, Haitians” [148]. Most readers will recognize these populations as three of the “Four H’s” that were once posited as the sole communities at risk for AIDS (intravenous drug users were, for linguistic purposes, collapsed into “heroin users”). Gere, for whatever reason, leaves the hemophiliac, the fourth H, out of his analysis. That decision is all the more strange considering that he mentions Ryan White, arguably the most famous hemophiliac ever, on the previous page. Likewise, the footnotes to the text are extensive and helpful. Nonetheless, there is confusion amongst them. In note 79 [292], Gere defines “cock ring” and “poppers.” But in note 35 [296], a mention is made of a blackout of AIDS reporting on the venerable “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour” with no clarification or additional information provided. The question here is who is the audience for this text? Who are the individuals reading it that might not know what cock rings and poppers are, but would, apparently, know about a blackout of AIDS information on a news program? Certainly additional information is warranted.

The desire for additional information reoccurs when Gere interprets one of the more remarkable (read: less traditional) dance performances in the text. In the video Sanctuary: Ramona and the Wolfgang Work for a Cure, the audience observes an erotic massage. Gere devotes several pages to describing nuances of the massage, including the placement of the audience, the setting the massage takes place in, and detailed information about the stroking of the massaged individual’s penis and scrotum as well as his orgasm. What he does not discuss is a curious event that occurs immediately following the massage. The audience has gathered around the massaged individual, alternately touching him and each other in a show of support. In the midst of this communal embrace, the sound of a woman crying is heard on the video. This crying continues as the audience communes with each other. “And then,” Gere writes, “the woman, presumably the same woman heard crying, shouts out at the top of her lungs, ‘You’re all sick,’ followed by the sound of feet scurrying from the space’” [252]. In lieu of discussing the reasons for the audience members’ condemnation, Gere opts to refer to it as a “surprising interruption” [Ibid]. He then returns to his reading of “Sanctuary” as a danced performance that holds promise in its subversive nature. While that may be true, it seems that Gere, a critic, would have explored this audience member’s reaction further, particularly as her reaction might be indicative of a larger cultural disapproval of such non-traditional AIDS-inspired choreographies.

In his epilogue, Gere writes, “AIDS is a defining event—perhaps the defining event—of late-twentieth-century theatrical dance” [264]. His text does not prove this. Ultimately, while there are moments of interest as well as instances of above-average analysis, How to Make Dances in an Epidemic is an incomplete treatment of its subject due primarily to the many issues that Gere leaves unexamined.

Cercles2006
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