Dance companies and drugmakers are strange bedfellows. For the most part, leotard-wearing dancers and lab-coated scientists remain firmly footed in different professional spheres. But at 8pm last night, the curtain went up on a unique collaboration. In honor of World AIDS Day, New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre partnered to produce an original dance performance inspired by the stories of people living with HIV.
The New York City Center in Manhattan was sold out and buzzing with excitement for the opening. In the audience for the show’s premiere were the ten people whose stories inspired the new work, called Home. They are the winners of BMS’s ‘Fight HIV Your Way’ contest, which invited HIV-positive people to submit photographs and essays that embodied their personal experience with the life-threatening virus.
For this year’s competition — the third installment of the contest and the largest yet, with more than 1,300 submissions — BMS decided to bring the ten winning entries to life through the medium of live dance. The winners included a photo of Jack Miller of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in zombie make-up, intended to show the ‘walking dead’ nature of people living with HIV/AIDS, and another by Kurt Weston of Huntington Beach, California, with him staring into the camera holding a heart next to his chest. Weston lost his sight to cytomegalovirus retinitis, a common problem for people with HIV/AIDS. In his entry, he explained that still has the love and commitment of his partner.
“The images were so powerful,” Judith Jamison, Ailey’s former artistic director and a judge for this year’s contest, told Nature Medicine. “I was going over every entry three or four times at first just taking it in.”
It’s an unorthodox pharma promotion, to be sure. BMS is the maker of Reyataz, a once-daily HIV protease inhibitor drug that is featured prominently on the contest’s website and in the dance performance brochure.
But the company stresses that the contest is open to anyone with HIV and is not meant to promote the antiretroviral pill. The real goal of the collaboration, according to BMS spokesperson Cristi Barnett, is to help raise awareness about HIV in the general public and inspire people impacted by the disease.
Still, last night’s performance notes ran to four pages to accommodate both a traditional artistic summary and an exhaustive multi-page list of safety information for the drug — an unexpected side-effect not usually seen at other dance performances.
Home begins and ends with the sound of breathing as a mass of dancers seethe at the center of the stage. In between, the hip hop choreography is often defiant and at times filled with sadness and isolation. Like the stories which inspired it, Home is a celebration of life in the face of stigma and illness.
Before the premiere, Robert Battle, current artistic director of the dance company, said a few words to the audience about the significance of the collaboration. “Today is World AIDS Day, but it is also the 22nd anniversary of the death of our founder, Alvin Ailey, from HIV,” he told a hushed theater. Inviting the contest winners to stand, he spoke over waves of applause saying, “Know that we all stand with you; that is why we’re here tonight.”
Home is playing at the New York City Center through December and will be included in next year’s Alvin Ailey World Tour.
Top image: Portrait of Alvin Ailey by Carl Van Vechten from Wikimedia Commons
Bottom image: Cast of Home courtesy of Alvin Ailey Dance Company