He's dancing as fast as he can from doc's office to dating game.
Whether Prokofiev or hip-hop, music has always inspired movement
for Chris DC Ramos. But an uncanny quiet was the motivation for the
choreographer's latest work, Silent/Listen, a dance about the
hush surrounding AIDS.
Ramos, 35, grew up in Manila and Hawaii in a huge family that
included a tango-dancing father and an older brother who'd caught
disco fever. Ramos chose professional ballet instead, eventually
migrating to New York City in 1989 to perform with modern-dance
companies such as Nicholas Rodriguez & DanceCompass and to
create his own work, a hybrid of ballet and modern.
When Ramos tested positive for HIV in 1996, he says, "my reaction
was blank. There was a numbness." And then, he adds simply, "I moved
on." He formed his own company, Ramos Dance, a year later. HIV, he
says, "pushed me to create."
Around that time, Ramos' mentor, a dance teacher at the
University of Hawaii, died of AIDS; the news was whispered to him by
the man's grieving widow. The tight secrecy around this death stayed
with Ramos, making him realize "how difficult it is to disclose such
a thing, even to someone you are close to." And it planted the seeds
As the piece germinated, the asymptomatic Ramos, who's been in a
committed relationship for 10 years, noticed another disturbing
silence -- that of his HIV-positive friends as they struggled to
make their way back into the dating scene after recovering from
years of illness. "I could sense that they were having problems," he
says. "But they would avoid the topic."
The dance, he says, is not only about "the uncertainty of what is
going to happen on a date, including when to reveal your HIV
status," but is also "a commentary on the uncertainty of being
healthy." Ramos, whose compact body covers space onstage with the
speed of an athlete, tackles the issues in both serious and
hysterically funny ways in Silent/Listen.
"The whole piece never mentions the term HIV," says Ramos,
who sought to echo contemporary conversations about AIDS. "It's OK
to hear positive," he says, "but it's not as blatant, as
direct, as HIV."
At the New York premiere of Silent/Listen at The Danspace
Project in October, the audience occasionally erupts into laughter
as Ramos whirls through quicksilver costume changes and explosive
dance phrases. The first scene shows him as a patient in the office
of his doctor, who, by means of a taped voiceover, prescribes new
meds and congratulates him on his stable health. The piece segues
into a sinuous dance, to the accompaniment of a fluttery-voiced
soprano, who sings the "Habañera" from Bizet's opera Carmen,
substituting the names of antiretrovirals for the original French
lyrics of the song's grand opening lines:
After passing through a bar scene, in which Ramos, via voiceover,
negotiates disclosure and sex with an HIV-negative pickup, the work
ends with a lyrical solo. We don't see Ramos himself, but just his
shadow behind a lit screen, dancing to the music from Saint-Saen's
The Dying Swan. In the final image, Ramos forms a cross -- a
plus sign -- with his hands.
It is a daring declaration for Ramos, who has not yet disclosed
his HIV status to his own family. Breaking the silence in public, he
says, "is one way for me to have relief, to send the message." I ask
how he imagines his family would react to the piece. With a nervous
laugh, he says, "It would be very dramatic for them."
The mother-and-child reunion is only a disclosure away
Hoping to stave off the stigma her daughter might have to face,
Fay Simpson waited several years to tell Ella, now 11, that her
mother has HIV. In her new solo work, Trapped in Seven,
Simpson uses dance, music and spoken word to trace her struggles
with HIV and abuse, and to reenact the raw moments when she finally
told Ella the truth. The highly intuitive girl, Simpson says, "felt
unconscious fear" about losing her mother long before being told.
As a downtown Manhattan performer in the mid-'80s, the Judy Davis
look-alike was a self-described "granola girl" -- into holistic
health, known for her boundless energy, dancing with small
postmodern dance troupes and living with her husband and baby on a
Hudson River houseboat. In 1987, she had a one-night stand with a
gay dance partner and a few weeks later came down with what seemed
like a terrible flu. When she went for an HIV test a few months
later, the news was bad. "I got very, very quiet," she says.
"Instead of panic, it felt like slow motion. It felt surreal."
Her friends fell into two camps: those who offered spiritual and
practical support and, as Simpson, now 42, recalls with a laugh,
"those who said, 'I'm going to go buy my funeral clothes and be by
your side to the end.'" For Simpson, who was sexually abused at age
7 and experienced violent relationships with men as an adult,
testing positive was a turning point, a chance to cast off
victimhood. She took the road less traveled, refusing
antiretrovirals and getting a good shrink to go with her herbalist
and acupuncturist. That same year she formed her own company, Fay
Simpson Dance Theatre. In Trapped in Seven, which premiered
at New York City's Home theater in January, Simpson contrasts her
own triumph over fear with the secret apprehensions of Ella, who is
"Her life is so important to me that it kept me from diving into
a woe-is-me scenario," Simpson says. "Whatever it took, I could not
die. I wanted her to have a healthy, normal childhood." Simpson's
commitment to her daughter proved a positive force in her own life.
"I find myself not falling into as many traps," she says of her
relations with men. However, post-infection couplings have been
anything but smooth. Simpson and her husband parted ways (still a
tough subject for Simpson), and she's been through a rogue's gallery
of dates in the years since.
One man craved raucous safe-sex dates with her, but little else.
"I asked, 'Can we see each other more often?'" Simpson recalls. He
looked at her in disbelief and said, "I can't have a relationship
with you. You have no future." The guy, a doctor, died six months
later of a heart attack.
Three years ago, Simpson started a protease cocktail -- her first
antiretrovirals -- which raised her CD4 cells from 4 to over 500.
Now that her daughter is privy to her HIV status, Simpson has begun
to lead workshops for people with life-challenging diseases. Offered
in conjunction with her performances, the workshops use yoga,
breathing exercises and the body's seven chakras (energy
centers) to help others "find that which is negative in them and get
it out of the body," she says.
"When you're a survivor, you feel very indebted, very grateful,
for your life," Simpson says. "Most things I pursue are about giving
back -- workshops with HIV-positive kids, the homeless. I feel like
I need to be of service."
But, as she dramatized in Trapped in Seven, none of this
could happen until Ella knew the truth. "Once I told her, I felt
OK," Simpson says. "Then I could come out about this."