Dance of Hope
Two Israeli Artists Create a Dance Production About Learning to Live with HIV
by Chip Alfred
Sahar Azimi has been a dancer and choreographer for two decades. Tamara Erde is a documentary filmmaker with a background in dance and theater. In 2010, they met and decided to collaborate. There was just one big question—what would the project be about?
Azimi, then thirty-six, was going through a traumatic time in his life. Following the devastating end of a six-year relationship with another man, he was diagnosed with HIV. The dancer, who “creates from the heart, not the head,” was so preoccupied with his health crisis that he doubted he could choreograph anything that wasn’t about his illness. Yet he had reservations about going public with his private news.
“I told Tamara I didn’t think the piece should be openly dealing with HIV,” Azimi recalls. “I was not sure I was ready to share it with the world. I couldn’t say it out loud that I had HIV.”
Eventually, he decided that was precisely the reason they should create the piece. At first it was tough going. At the time, Azimi didn’t even know if he would have the energy to continue his dancing career. “I had the worst-case scenarios running through my mind—dying a horrible death, thinking I would be sick for the rest of my life.”
Ultimately, he found the strength to express his feelings through art. “Maybe if I can create another piece and put myself back on two feet, I can deal with whatever I have,” he thought. He wrote some narrative text, titled Morning, that is woven through the dance, Cell in a Human Scale. Morning captures a glimpse of the dancer’s life as he faces a new world and a new day.
“I know it’s morning.
The body moves a few steps before awareness.
If I know it’s morning, it means there is some balance between the body and my subconscious.
Soon we’ll all get out of bed, me and my awareness, in my body.
One continuous moment has been with me for many long days.
For countless mornings the feeling continues
As if in the morning, after waiting the entire night for the body to wake up, this feeling is already there, waiting…
A vague feeling of failure, fear, expectation. /Desire, hope, and meaning have disappeared from my morning.
Awareness. Awareness that will never surrender.
Cell in a Human Scale, co-produced by the Committee to Fight AIDS in Israel, is a multimedia dance piece set in a sterile white environment and performed by Azimi and Erde surrounded by a backdrop of Erde’s filmed images. In contrast to Erde, covered from head to toe in a white body suit, Azimi is clad in nothing but a jock strap and a thick layer of white makeup. His look is influenced by butoh, a Japanese contemporary dance form featuring dancers wearing a piece of cloth covering only their genitals. For this dancer, wearing an athletic supporter has another significance. “I remember that when I was infected, I was in a jock strap.”
He describes his fifty-minute dance as “a very personal view of my first year after I was infected, coping with HIV and the fear from society.” He expected the fear, but he didn’t expect the reservations about the dance piece that he encountered. The dancer, who recently spent four months as an artist in residence at the University of Illinois, has never presented Cell in the U.S. or anywhere outside his native country. After approaching a number of dance festivals, Azimi received praise for his creativity, but heard the same response time after time. “They don’t think their audience wants to deal with the issue.” The show, which premiered in Tel Aviv in 2011, is scheduled for an encore engagement in Israel this summer and performances in Croatia in 2013.
Azimi says audience members typically remain in their seats—silent and stunned—for several minutes after the production. “People are still writing to us to say how they were touched or impressed and that we changed something within them,” Erde remarks, noting that many people don’t know up front what the show is about. “It’s about HIV and yet it’s not about HIV. It’s really about the relation between a person and society—a different person in society—and dealing with the gap between them.”
In Israel, that gap between society and people living with HIV may be wider than you think. The number of people diagnosed with HIV since 1981 is approximately 6,500, based on statistics from the Israeli Ministry of Health. In a nation of nearly eight million people, that figure may seem small, but the rate of new infections is on the rise. In 2010, more than 400 Israelis were diagnosed with HIV, the highest number of new infections in ten years. Stigma and discrimination continue to be major obstacles in the battle against HIV. Insurance companies in Israel routinely deny HIV carriers nursing care and life insurance. Since Israeli banks won’t approve housing loans to customers without life insurance, HIV-positive people can’t get mortgages. Some dentists refuse to treat HIV-positive patients; and according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, many children living with the virus don’t know their status. Parents fear their children will be ostracized if friends or classmates find out. Medications, hospital visits, and blood tests are often kept secret, and celebrities in Israel don’t campaign for AIDS charities as they do in other countries. AIDS prevention and awareness efforts in Israel lack a recognizable face, but that may be about to change.
In recent years, Azimi and leaders of the Israel AIDS Task Force opened up to the media about being HIV-positive. Still, Azimi worries about the impact his revelation will have on his career. “The problem is I have HIV printed all over me in Israel,” he says. “It’s a small country. I hope I can find my voice and not just about HIV.” He plans to do school talks with youth about his experiences with HIV and hopes to present Cell in Israeli schools.
Erde, a native Israeli living in Paris, says she just wants to keep doing projects like Cell “that influence other people and open their hearts or their minds to something.” Midnight East, an Israeli culture magazine, writes about Cell in a Human Scale, “One cannot remain unaffected by this performance—and that is where hope lives.”
For more information about Cell in a Human Scale, visit cellinahumanscale.blogspot.com.
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.