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AIDS Crisis Hits Home for Choreographer

Former Martha Graham star Tim Wengerd always dances as if his life depends on it. But this week, when Wengerd performs his riveting response to the deadly scourge of AIDS, the urgency of life and death may be more than just a metaphor for the dancer and his disciples.

“I’m very passionate about all my dances, but I’ve lost a lot of really close friends from AIDS, so this piece is especially emotional for me,” Wengerd said recently. “People I’ve danced with have died from AIDS.

“I’m more alive when I’m dancing than any other time, and it’s easy to translate my experience with AIDS into dance,” even though he does not have AIDS, he said.

Wengerd’s “Free Among the Dead” had a rousing San Diego send-off last year, and now the New Mexico-based choreographer is ready to reprise the emotion-charged solo for his four-concert series

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(today through Sunday) at Westminster Presbyterian Church. It’s his way of dealing with the demons, and keeping the AIDS issue alive.

“When the catastrophe first hit New York, the New York Times downplayed it,” Wengerd said. “They didn’t want to freak people out and they didn’t think people would change their behavior anyway. But the gay community did change their behavior when they found out AIDS was sexually transmitted. They changed their behavior quicker than anybody.”

Wengerd believes Dance magazine, the bible of the industry, has been suppressing information on AIDS-related deaths in the dance community. But editor William Como denies it.

“We always say it’s AIDS when it’s written on the death certificate,” Como said in a phone interview from his New York office. “But legally we’re not at liberty to say it’s AIDS if the death certificate doesn’t list it as the cause. AIDS is not special to dancers, but since we don’t have as many artists, it’s devastating to the dance world.”

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“The legal system provided them with a socially acceptable excuse,” said Wengerd, “but I know several people who died of AIDS that were not listed that way in Dance magazine. And there are a whole lot more deaths from AIDS among dancers than we ever hear about.”

Local dancer Barry Bernal cited the widespread AIDS epidemic among Broadway dancers as one of the reasons he left a lucrative job in the New York production of “Starlight Express.”

Although AIDS has swept through the entire spectrum of theater, Wengerd is convinced the dance community has been hardest hit by this deadly disease, and he thinks he knows the reason why.

“It’s the awful life style. The dance industry is unhealthy because we live crazy lives,” said Wengerd. “When I danced with Martha Graham, I was at the studio from 10 a.m. to 11 o’clock at night, and we were always exhausted and always in pain. It’s a brutal profession--very stressful--and you don’t eat properly or take care of yourselves. That’s what makes us prey to these things. We’re so enervated.”

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Due to the physical demands of the profession, dancers are much more likely to be sidelined by AIDS.

“You don’t have to be nearly as sick to be knocked out of dancing as people who sit at a desk all day. You can do those kinds of things for a long time,” he said, “but you have to be in great shape to dance. And many dancers allow their illnesses to go too far before they get medical help because they’re so used to working in pain, they don’t realize they’re sick until they have major symptoms.”

But as Wengerd tells it: “I’m on a crusade. Dance is the ultimate holistic art form, and I think each person knows when our bodies are not in balance. It’s just that we’ve been weaned away from paying attention to our bodies very early in life. People should be much more aware of their bodies.”

Although there are no statistics on the breakdown of AIDS-afflicted dancers, the dance community--sensing its devastating effects on the profession--has been an active catalyst in generating support for AIDS research and treatment. Last year, Mikhail Baryshnikov launched a campaign called “Dancing for Life,” which involved 13 dance troupes and raised $1.4 million to fight the disease. Nancy Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor were involved in the event.

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Like Wengerd, Three’s Company’s Jean Isaacs is sure that dancers top the list of AIDS victims, but she can understand why many AIDS deaths go unreported.

“One of the San Diego dancers died of AIDS and was buried in New York,” she said. “As soon as the undertaker found out the cause, he doubled the price of the funeral. And many times the dancers keep it a secret because they don’t want their families to know they’re gay.”

Wengerd’s San Diego concerts will serve as a benefit for two local AIDS organizations, the AIDS Assistance Fund and the San Diego AIDS Project.

“We saw this as a chance to reach other people in the community,” Nathan Clark, of the San Diego AIDS Project said of the Wengerd project. “We hope to reach traditional people who are interested in dance, and people who are interested in AIDS as a cause.

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“Our goal is to sell 600 tickets, and our two agencies will divide $6,000 between us,” Clark said. “Tim’s performances are particularly emotional. He grabs people. And we hope this will sensitize people to the fact that plagues have come and gone through the ages, and we’re in the middle of one now.”

Although the stigma attached to AIDS is far from gone, “people are getting better about AIDS as they see it touching them closer,” said Clark. “AIDS is about incredible human suffering. It’s not about life style.”

Wengerd’s concert, presented by the Dancer’s Workshop of San Diego, will include another solo by the visiting dance maker--a world premiere that reveals the other side of Wengerd’s dance persona.

“The new one is very lyrical, very floating. If you want to know what it’s about,” he said, smiling, “it’s about me . You’ll see my two extremes in this concert. At one end is the dramatic piece, and in this one, the message is the movement. But it’s equally valid. I like to do that--alternate my solos.”

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Since the concert is a showcase for the workshop students as well, Wengerd has whipped up an all-purpose piece for a large ensemble.

“It’s always a challenge choreographing for a group of students who work together for a very short time. Some are barely ambulatory and some are highly trained,” he said. “Fortunately, this year we have a lot of repeats, and we have our largest group ever. I even have seven men in the group, which is fantastic, although a lot are still beginners.”

Wengerd’s workshop sessions in Point Loma have covered everything from dance technique to his homespun philosophy--things he wishes someone had taught him when he was still in training.

“There’s more to being a dancer than just dancing,” said Wengerd. “There’s the experience of life. What else do we have to dance about?”

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