Getting into bed with AIDS

By Emmeline Tyler | 06 Jun 13
People seated and raising their hands in black and white

By Emmeline Tyler. This article is part of our April and May focus on Arts and Human Rights.

“Who wants to get into bed with the Victorian AIDS Council? BalletLab does.” – Phillip Adams.

Phillip Adams BalletLab is partnering with the Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Men’s Health Centre to create Kingdom, a multi-layered visual and dance performance project that they intend to present at the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne.

Right Now spoke with Phillip Adams, artistic director of BalletLab, a contemporary dance company, about his vision for Kingdom, and his excitement to be working with the Victorian AIDS Council.

“We are unusual bedfellows,” he said, “but when we do get into bed together there’s a surprising dialogue merging from the sheets!”

This dialogue centres on the individual stories of 60 HIV infected or affected participants, who will be collaborating with a group of choreographers and visual artist Andrew Hazewinkel. According to Adams, this will “create a striking and very human cross-platform performative art work.”

Kingdom will use, as a lens, the history and experiences of the HIV/AIDS infected/affected community in Victoria to the notion of a physical utopia; encouraging participants to discover and articulate their personal kingdom or utopia.” Participants in the collaboration are free to question what and who defines their idea of utopia, and to explore how they define space and identity in the context of a life-changing HIV-diagnosis.

“I spent the late 80s and all through the 90s living and working in New York City. I was there at the height of the AIDS epidemic.”

The project will extend beyond Melbourne: “We also intend to deliver our workshop program to regional Victoria (Geelong and Bendigo are our primary focus regions with significant communities living here) and to attract participants from outside the Melbourne CBD.”

Adams has a personal motivation for this ambitious project; he saw HIV/AIDS ravage his community when the disease first emerged: “I spent the late 80s and all through the 90s living and working in New York City. I was there at the height of the AIDS epidemic. I recall a community of GLBTQI – in particular, my networks of artists and friends – sinking under the wrath of AIDS.”

As part of the first generation to experience the effects of AIDS, Adams is alarmed by the lack of awareness among the younger generation. “With the success of multi-viral drugs now, people do live with HIV/AIDS and younger age groups – the 20s, 30s even – are just not thinking about the impact of living in this way. There is still no cure and the rates are going up – and it’s affecting diverse communities – gay, straight, everything. There are people living who were born with it. I think that the epidemic is something that is vastly different to think about today compared to 20 plus years ago. We have the information and knowledge now but it’s not strong on the radar for some.”

Adams is responding with Kingdom, “offering a unique and authentic message channel, linking this directly into communities who are often deeply marginalised and lack a cultural voice in today’s age. Kingdom is about enriching lives culturally and positively, valorising participants’ experiences and stories. The experience I want to generate becomes an affirming, personal expression of identity in both the process and performance outcomes. It’s about respect and recognition for those living and affected, who often experience stigma and are marginalised by the illness.”

Art, and especially performance art, has the ability to change us in immeasurable ways.

While Adams’ vision for Kingdom does not have a specific human rights focus, the project’s aims are in line with human rights ideals. They intend to change the lives of people who are infected or affected by HIV/AIDS for the better. “Kingdom holds potential to provide alternative, personal wellbeing to participants through engagement in an artistic and physically expressive process that is about them.” It is generally accepted that this kind of engagement has a positive effect on health through improving self-esteem and motivation. Adams calls it “a ‘medicine’ for the spirit”. The project is also significant for marginalised groups. In the artistic process, “we articulate and underscore the lives of GLBTQI communities, supporting their recognition, their equality as members of the whole Victorian community, with dignity and respect, without judgement and without censorship”.

According to The Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Men’s Health Centre, Victoria has the second-largest HIV epidemic in Australia, with over 5000 people infected, and rates of infection are increasing. Because of the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, many people suffer marginalisation along with the disease. Kingdom seeks to develop awareness of the people living with HIV/AIDS, “bringing new visibility to the wider community as well as our participants, and ultimately a prevention message”. The project also aims to build a bridge between the local community and the 18,000 delegates coming for the International AIDS Conference.

The form of Kingdom is as relevant as the content. Art, and especially performance art, has the ability to change us in immeasurable ways. “My work has been described as rushing at audiences, a torrent of images and information that pulls us somewhere even if we don’t want to go there and leaves us thinking about it days and months later. It’s a combination of fragments that refer to the whole – an odd set of relationships between form, object, idea and movement that acts as a thread, that binds all elements into a specific narrative.”

“Dance and visual performance is a non-literate language that transcends language barriers,” Adams said. The ambiguity of such a form means that the audience puts as much effort into finding meaning as the performer does in expressing it. Adams is keen to extend this conversation, seeking to “move the audience out of passive spectatorship”. This interaction is especially important in the context of HIV/AIDS; breaking down boundaries between performer and audience can be thought to symbolise the breaking down of stigma that separates the HIV/AIDS infected/affected community from the wider community.

“I think Kingdom has universal resonance – we are all part of a community – and it can speak to the whole community on multiple levels – not only about HIV/AIDS and its impact on our community.”

Kingdom is being made to be a part of the Cultural Program of the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne in July 2014.

BalletLab is currently seeking participants for Kingdom. They are holding an information session on Wednesday 12th June from 6pm-7pm at the Positive Living Centre, 51 Commercial Road, South Yarra. For more information, contact BalletLab: T: 03 9645 9937 or

Emmeline is a writer, based in Wangaratta. Her works can be found at In Brief Magazine and Mary Magazine. She blogs at Meaningful Rambles and tweets as @emmelineysun.