The Age of AIDS: Neil Greenberg Looks Back
July 3, 1981: “Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer.” (New York Times)
Twenty-five years later, we know this outbreak was not a “fatal form of cancer,” nor Kaposi’s Sarcoma, gay cancer, or GRIDS, as it was originally deemed. It was AIDS, a mysterious disease that began its rapid spread in the early 1980s. For those of us who have grown up around AIDS it is hard to remember a time before this epidemic. But for choreographer Neil Greenberg, AIDS is not only a daily struggle, but its inception demarcates his life, drawing a clear distinction between past and present. This month, the 25th anniversary of HIV/AIDS offers a context for restaging his 1994 Not-About-AIDS-Dance (NAAD), as startling today as it was twelve years ago. The award-winning work will be performed at Dance Theater Workshop June 21 through 25.
In an interview last month, Greenberg recalled one devastating year during which he lost nine friends and a beloved brother, Jon, to the disease. “In the mid-1990s it was pretty horrific and I fled from it,” he explained over the phone. “Now enough time has passed. I need to go back and reprocess this period of my life.”
Greenberg’s desire to examine a painful past echoes an impulse he witnessed in his father, a prisoner of war during WWII. “During my childhood he never talked about his experience as a POW. Now you can’t get him to shut up about it,” he says. Like father, like son. Greenberg now chats openly about his HIV+ status and the AIDS-activist content of his choreography.
Greenberg and his brother, Jon, grew up outside St. Paul, Minnesota and moved to New York to pursue performing careers and “be gay.” Greenberg studied dance at Juilliard and performed with Eliot Feld and Merce Cunningham before forming his own company in 1986. Jon, three years older than Neil, was an actor and AIDS activist until his death in 1993. “I and other friends cared for Jon as he was dying. We took turns spending nights at his house in the East Village,” Greenberg remembers. “It was horrifying. I mean that very literally. He went into a coma and died two days later.”
As Jon and many friends died around him, Greenberg found refuge in the dance studio, creating material that would be used in Not-About-AIDS-Dance—one of the most profound performance pieces to respond to AIDS. Neither self-indulgent nor stereotypical, NAAD has been called Greenberg’s “masterwork” and earned much critical praise for its arresting humor and poignant accounts of death and loss. Following five dancers through the events of a year—the span of time in which the work was created—NAAD uses text projected on the back wall to give snippets of biographical information about the dancers. The effect is endearingly intimate; private details are given full disclosure. Greenberg began using “extra-dance” information to draw an audience into his work. In his six years as a company member, Greenberg spent many hours watching Cunningham’s dancers rehearse. “I had such a rich experience watching those dances. I wondered how I could give that to the audience, so I started to talk personally about the dancers in hopes that would enhance the experience.”
Greenberg admits that revivals are uncommon in modern dance—at least among his generation of choreographers. Presenters are more interested in showing a new work and the shelf-life of these new dances is surprisingly brief. Just as rare is a role made for a specific dancer. NAAD is particular to a group of dancers. As Greenberg explains it the work “is tied to the original cast members by name and biographical information” and he plans on keeping it that way. “Dance is a time-based art form,” he clarifies. Three of the original cast members, Ellen Barnaby, Justine Lynch, and Greenberg will dance in the reconstruction. The roles of Jo McKendry and Christopher Batenhorst will be performed by Paige Martin and Antonio Ramos. Also on the program will be Quartet with Three Gay Men, a companion piece that probes another cultural response to disclosure.
To create material for his dances, Greenberg videos himself and his dancers improvising and then replicates the movement verbatim. “I do almost none of the textbook manipulations to the material—the stuff they teach you in college choreography class,” he states. His signature style is full of nuanced clarity. Inspired by time, space, and energy, Greenberg’s movement recalls his early training with the abstract masters such as Cunningham. It is articulate, but not always steady, as if the task is sometimes too difficult. But, the dancers move through challenges, their strengths and weaknesses boldly exposed. Greenberg is able to ascertain essential traits of grief by keeping his work on a palatable, human scale. He attributes this to the dancing. NAAD is grounded in dancing. The text is a gloss. Dancing has always been the main element of the piece.” A portal into the core of these dancers, Greenberg’s text paints the work with a remarkable luster.
Twenty minutes into NAAD, Greenberg divulges his own HIV+ status. This moment, one of many personal truths revealed, is not given the frightening weight you might expect—he does not take on the role of victim. When Greenberg began making NAAD, he knew he would disclose this fact. “It was important to me. It was a secret I was keeping.” No longer confidential, this information carries a lighter burden now than it did more than a decade ago. “In 1994, it was still a death sentence. This is a different time, but the piece ties me to the past.” Like reading an old diary, much of the dancers’ biographical information bears a different significance. Now a mother of three, Ellen Barnaby tells of her own mother’s death in 1994. Justine Lynch, who was a dewy 23-year-old when NAAD premiered, is now 35.
Much art has been created in response to AIDS—ranging from tepid retorts to controversial melodrama. A year after NAAD premiered, Bill T. Jones, another HIV+ choreographer, presented his seminal work, Still/Here, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Famous for its critical aftermath, Jones’s work sparked a storm of debate and was rebuked as “victim art” by then New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce. Although Still/Here deserves every bit of its legacy, Greenberg confronts AIDS with admirable astringency. Through NAAD, Greenberg expresses the sorrow of death, but his mourning does not alienate. Rather, his honesty emits tender intimacy and the hopeful ways life, in the face of death, manages to continue.
In more recent years Greenberg has been fascinated with how we, as a culture, respond to AIDS now that it is no longer synonymous with death. Although it currently infects over 40 million people worldwide, anti-retroviral medications, when available, decrease the death-rate of an HIV+ individual by two-thirds. Yet while the contraction of HIV recedes in the U.S., newspaper headlines report staggering numbers of infected individuals in third-world countries. The fight against AIDS has been neutralized by websites and statistics; distanced by medication and stigma. Twelve years ago, Greenberg gave a human face to a politically charged plague. For him, living with AIDS is, above all, living. While we have become fixated on treatments, activism, statistics, and AIDS as a plight of the third-world, NAAD allows us to look again at the face of AIDS, and reconsider how we live with it.
CATHERINE MASSEY writes about dance and lives in Manhattan. She is a graduate student at NYU.