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February 8, 2001 Margie Gillis at home with powerful AIDS talk



Dancer and activist Margie Gillis talks about AIDS.


by John Austen

Internationally acclaimed dancer and AIDS activist Margie Gillis made an impassioned plea that we continue the fight against AIDS and “all other injustices” in a lecture at the Hall Building on January 25. She was speaking as part of the Concordia Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS.

Her speech, called “Dance vs. HIV: Art, Politics and Audience,” came, as always with Gillis, straight from the heart. She always addresses life’s obstacles, hopes, fears, joys and anguish with incredible passion.

Gillis’s eldest brother, Paul Gillis, died of AIDS in 1993. He was a noted choreographer and principal dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

“There’s no doubt that the dance community was decimated by HIV/AIDS,” Gillis told the audience. “I lost my hero — my brother. I was with him all the time during the last two years of his life. His courage has formed everything I do and everything I teach.

“I’m not scared of death now,” she continued. “I had to deal with my rage when I found out Chris had AIDS. I’m blessed that I can use my 29 years as a soloist as a big political tool.”

Gillis said that people must continue the fight against AIDS and not assume there is no longer a serious problem.

“The AIDS crisis is far from over, despite the helping-you-survive-longer cocktail, as I like to call it,” she said. “We have to get the message out there that there is still much work to be done. There is no sense preaching to the converted. It’s not likely you’ll get Ronald Reagan or other pigs like that in a hall like this listening to someone speak on this subject, but you must try to win people over and engage them in your experience.

“Be aggressive,” she continued. “People should be outraged, not just for AIDS, but for all the other injustices in the world.”

A video was then played of a performance Gillis did for the CBC when she found out her brother had AIDS. The powerful and moving piece was accompanied by haunting music from Sinead O’Connor, which the Irish singer donated to Gillis for the television special.

Those in the audience who had never seen Gillis perform were amazed at the passion and unbridled energy that she exudes in her work.

“I try, most of all, to dance with integrity,” she said. “I use dance as a kind of catharsis to express joy, sorrow and uncertainty. The body has a knowledge all of its own, and I try to use that knowledge in an intelligent manner, combining physicality and spirituality.”

Despite not being the most gifted of speakers, Gillis had the crowd riveted, with several people moved to tears during the presentation.

Gillis’s unique and acclaimed style have taken her around the world and has earned her the title of Cultural Ambassador of Quebec and Canada, making her the first modern dance artist to be given this honour. She has danced and choreographed for a variety of troupes, including Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the National Ballet of Canada.

She received a Gemini Award in 1998 for the CBC documentary Wild Hearts in Strange Times, one of many televised shows devoted to her.

The Concordia HIV/AIDS Lecture Series continues March 1 with British photographer, curator and activist Sunil Gupta.