HIV activists, dancers, and artistic and life partners Orlando Zane Hunter Jr. and Ricarrdo Valentine formed Brother(hood) Dance! in 2014 to challenge the dominant perspective about same-gender-loving African Americans in the 21st century. Their multimedia masterpieces run the gamut of themes -- from maintaining sanity despite governmental oppression to subverting the notion of black male intimacy in cowboy communities. Their work has been presented to great acclaim at BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance), Viso Out Festival, La Mama Theatre, Danspace at St. Mark's Church, JACK, Movement Research at Judson Church, and throughout Mexico and the Caribbean.
Their next U.S. performance will happen Jan. 9 to 11, 2020 at The Theater at Gibney in New York City. Currently, Hunter and Valentine are conducting ethnographic research into the African diasporic legacy of Mexico. This opportunity came about after they performed at a dance festival in Mazatlán. During their stay, lines of strangers followed them to request that they take a picture together.
"That was overwhelming," said Valentine. "We were like, 'What is this all about? We're just two black people in Mexico.' Then, after we taught a dance class, folks came up to us and were like, 'I have a black grandmother in our family. I don't identify as black, but she's there.'"
This piqued their curiosity and led them to an Afro-mestizo community of 4,000 people, outside of Veracruz. In addition to teaching dance classes, the duo began conducting interviews with people about reclaiming and reconnecting to their African roots. What they found was that many of their interviewees had begun their own ancestral investigations by learning dance moves from online videos.
"We're raising awareness about the diaspora," said Valentine. "Not a lot of people understand that there are Afro-Mexican, Afro-Peruvian, or Afro-Japanese people. We exist in a global community, so we're taking our identities as people from the U.S. and looking at how we are connected to other people in the world who have the same lost history that we do."
After converting this experience into a new dance piece called La Abuela Negra en el Armario (The Black Grandmother in the Closet in English), the two plan to publish a book that will document their investigative process and discoveries. This transcultural dialogue is not a one-sided affair. Hunter and Valentine are using their time in Mexico to learn new dances and forms of rhythmic footwork. Hunter, who comes from a hip-hop and contemporary Indian dance background, has found the experience particularly illuminating.
"All of this footwork is innately a part of the diaspora. We feel like we're literally on the heels of our ancestors," said Hunter. "We didn't grow up dancing with zapatos (heeled dance shoes) or these specific rhythms, but we have movements that are very similar. It's like, 'This is like a Senegalese step or this is like a West African Guinea step.' And their contemporary dance is similar to folkloric West African dance or Senegalese dance. So I'm like, 'What is folklore if people here are doing the Senegalese steps that I was doing back home?'"
They describe the experience as being akin to "remembering something that we used to know." It also reinforces that on a transcultural level, dance is the same language across borders, just with different accents. Though Hunter and Valentine are lauded throughout the dance community for this Zora Neale Hurston–like approach to anthropology, I became aware of them through their exploration of AIDS and HIV.
In 2015, I was diagnosed with the virus and became consumed with anger. What helped me move beyond my rage was watching Brother(hood) Dance!'s gorgeous dance-theatre piece, how to survive a plague. If that title puts you in mind of the David France 2012 documentary film about the early years of activism against the AIDS epidemic, that's intentional. Valentine and Hunter created their version as a reclamation of what they see as the film's total erasure of black people.
"We saw one fucking brother walk across the screen at an ACT UP protest," said Valentine. "And we were like, 'There he goes! Rewind the tape!' Where were the black women and men? How were they taking care of each other? Because I know they were there. Looking through the archives of Marlon Riggs and Assotto Saint, we were seeing and hearing how care was being provided. But that in-depth conversation about the care process for HIV and AIDS in the black community wasn't being discussed widely until *Pose* came out."
Two years before the FX show Pose premiered, Brother(hood) Dance! unveiled their excavation of love and death for black men with AIDS at St. Mark's Church in New York City. In my review of the piece for the Huffington Post, I wrote, "This is a stunning tribute to those who died too soon from a virus that sees no color but that continues to ravage one community of color in particular. Though the plague in question is AIDS and the pain that this duo excavates is shockingly real, Hunter Jr. and Valentine keep their focus on what matters most: LOVE. There is an ongoing discussion regarding how to solve the crisis of under-representation in art; the obvious solution is by supporting more work like this."
"We thank Ishmael [Houston-Jones] for that opportunity, because not many folks in our generation are creating work around that part of their identity," said Valentine. "Older folks are like, 'I miss my friend.' We're not thinking about that. Folks are living and thriving with this virus and they're still pumping down the street, fabulous as ever. At the same time we can honor our ancestors. Something Ishmael talked about was a missing generation that's supposed to be mentoring us. And we definitely feel that (loss). Where do we go for that kind of guidance in our field? To keep going?"
As always, it comes down to representation, which is essential for marginalized communities, though it is plain to see that many people are hiding from telling their own HIV story because of fear. While it has not always been easy, Brother(hood) Dance! has taken it upon themselves to speak out about these issues and to represent when no one else will. It's a risky position, particularly in the dance field, where the specter of decimation that AIDS wrought in the '80s and '90s is still present.
"I think of it as placing ourselves in the lineage," said Hunter. "It was a duty being handed to us and we said, 'We have to be honest and tell our story.' Because if we aren't honest, we'll be doing a disservice not only to ourselves, but to the many people who are going to see this work and the story that we're telling."
Brother(hood) Dance! investigates every aspect of the Afrodiasporic and queer experience. Unfortunately, this diversity in work makes categorizing them difficult, which means that applying for grants and funding is a nightmare.
"It's the bane of our existence," said Hunter. "The only reason we get things is because we know people in different places. We never really apply for any kind of grants or teaching opportunities anymore. It's literally like, we've embedded ourselves in community so the community shows up for us."
Valentine went further in his frustration over finding philanthropic support for their work. "I apply to these major institutions, and they are like, 'Oh, thank you for applying.' But whenever one of those institutions does a diversity initiative and invites one of us into the room, a black woman or an LGBT person is the one who says, 'Yeah, we need Brother(hood) Dance! in this thing.' That's how we got to Gibney. If it wasn't for Eva [Yaa Asantewaa], it would still be like, 'Well … We're not at Gibney.'"
Neither this nor an HIV diagnosis can stop Hunter and Valentine from thriving. They remain defiant in their commitment to creating new work, pushing boundaries, and pursuing openly vibrant, sexual lives.
"Having HIV, people think that you become less sexual or that you shouldn't be having sex or something," said Hunter. "We're still sexual beings; nobody stopped fucking having sex because they got fucking diabetes or a heart condition, right? Your blood has a virus, so you can't be fucking? No, god damn it! I'm gonna keep living my life as a beautiful human."
Our conversation continued on to a number of topics, including open relationships (sex with one person for eternity is unrealistic), taking medication (do it but figure out what works best for you), and heteronormative gender roles (don't do it). As a closing note, I asked the pair to share their thoughts about the current state of Blackness and Queerness.
"As dark-skinned black men, we never get the social acceptance of queerness, because at this particular point in time it's seen as wearing high heels, glitter, and a colorful wig," said Hunter. "That's being called queer performance instead of just one aspect of it."
There's a cultural understanding from Burkina Faso that suggests that some plants aren't named, because that takes away their spiritual and healing properties. Living in the U.S. but coming from Africa, they tried to name us "black," and we took that and tried to mold ourselves to fit into it -- but we're still unnamed. I think that's why much of the world views African Americans as the mode for how to be black in the world; because it comes out of such unknown. They tried to name us, forgetting that we already had names.
However you name Hunter and Valentine, be sure to start by calling them brother.
Brother(hood) Dance! returns to New York City from Mexico to perform Afro/Solo/Man on Jan. 9 to 11, 2020 at The Theater at Gibney. For more information or tickets, visit gibneydance.org.