Dancing Ghosts

4.23.2014

By Brian Schaefer

San Francisco-based choreographer Sean Dorsey, the first trans dance artist to receive an NEA grant, on giving voice to a generation lost to AIDS.

Photography by Lydia Daniller

The National Endowment for the Arts has an uncomfortable history with LGBT art, beginning with the 1989 controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe and continuing through the culture wars of the '90s. It was a wide-scale silencing on a national level while the community was simultaneously being silenced by AIDS.

So when the San Francisco-based choreographer Sean Dorsey received an NEA grant this past January, becoming the first transgender dance artist to do so, it was both individual artistic validation as well as a sign of how this government agency (still anemic in its funding but symbolic nonetheless) has re-embraced queer artists.

More poignant still was the fact that Dorsey received the grant for his new work The Missing Generation, a heavily researched ode to the pioneers in the early years of the AIDS, the same community largely dismissed by the agency decades ago.

Dorsey’s company performs an excerpt from The Missing Generation in San Francisco (April 24-26) along with the revival of Lou, a tribute to transgender activist Lou Sullivan, which premiered in 2009. Dorsey spoke with Out about LGBT collective trauma, HIV/AIDS in the transgender community, and why we can’t turn our back on survivors.

OutWhat inspired you to create The Missing Generation?

I built [my previous] show during a two-year creation process in which I recorded oral history interviews with LGBT elders across the country. As I met all these extraordinary elders, I became painfully aware that there was an entire group of voices missing… All those people we lost to the early AIDS epidemic.

I do feel a tremendous urgency to doing this project now: During my lifetime, we will see the passing of the last survivors who actually lived through the early epidemic. We must capture and share their stories before they are lost forever.

What was the process of your research? Who have you spoken with?

I’m mid-way through a two-year creation process. I started last year, doing a ton of reading, archival research, and traveling across the United States to do community residencies. I’ve been doing interviews in San Francisco, New York, Washington DC and Atlanta – and will visit more cities this fall.

I’ve met and spoken with people who lost lovers, partners and friends, early activists and ACT UP members, early healthcare providers. My creation process is quite long. After spending a year researching and traveling, I will spend 100-150 hours in the sound studio building a richly layered score featuring interview excerpts and original music by my composers.

What surprised you most about those conversations?

This project has been completely life changing for me. I think before I dived into the project last year, I had a lot of apprehension about the amount of pain, death, grief and loss I would be immersing myself in. I’ve already been exposed to a lot of death and loss in my own life, and so I felt apprehensive.

But these conversations have been so incredibly rich, inspiring, balanced and brimming with devastating pain as well as triumphant love and courage, with death as well as humor. It really speaks to the human experience - the more intense our lives are, the more intensely we can become attuned to love and beauty also.

Do you think young people today understand the impact of AIDS/HIV on our community?

No. But this is not through any fault of their own - it’s because LGBTQ people in this country still live as second-class citizens, without full and equal rights and civil liberties. Our histories still fall between the pages of family albums and aren’t included in mainstream history books, museums and archives.

As a transgender person, I am especially passionate about bringing transgender stories and histories into the AIDS history narrative — I don’t think people outside of transgender communities know or realize how transgender and transwomen’s communities have been and continue to be decimated by HIV/AIDS.

What do you want audiences to think about after seeing this work?

I think culturally we have in many ways failed these veterans of the early AIDS epidemic. As a culture, we walked away not only from the painful memories of the early epidemic, but we also walked away from these veterans and survivors. We left people to just deal with their unimaginable grief on their own.

It’s time for us to turn to longtime survivors of the early AIDS epidemic and say, “Please tell me your story. Please tell me about your hurt. Tell me about your loved ones. Tell me about your activism.” And it’s time to tell these longtime survivors, and the people we lost to government indifference and inaction, “I honor the ways you made my life today possible. We owe you so much.”

This interview has been edited for length. Sean Dorsey Dance performs at Z Space in San Francisco, April 24-26. Visit the website for more information and tickets. Watch a clip of Lou below:

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