A tribute to the dead and the living

An Olivier Award-winner returns with a bold production about South Africa's Aids sufferers
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The Independent Culture

"I tried to start breaking down barriers in dance long before apartheid was broken down," says the Johannesburg-based choreographer Robyn Orlin, a self-proclaimed "artistic tsotsi", someone who "steals and trashes other forms" - in this instance, dance. "But I think that in contemporary dance there is more openness than in classical ballet."

Last year, Daddy, I've Seen This Piece Six Times and I Still Don't Know Why They're Hurting Each Other was Orlin's British debut, also at the Barbican, and won her the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance. Concerned with the state of modern dance in South Africa - and confused about its emerging identity - Daddy had moments when the politics of colour hit the audience full in the face. A black dancer covering herself in white flour was particularly poignant.

But her latest piece, We Must Eat Our Suckers with the Wrappers on, about HIV and Aids in South Africa, is just as bold. The 14 performers take wrappers off condoms and stick them in their mouths. "They are being very sexual - without caring about how they look," says Orlin, whose message in its simplest form is: use a condom. The name of the piece is township lingo.

"The struggle for people in South Africa before apartheid was about dignity, and people are now dying for different reasons - of HIV/Aids - but still with no dignity. No one should die without dignity. This is a tribute to those who have lost their lives and to show that we must stop isolating people who are HIV positive, and help them."

Orlin trained at the London School of Contemporary Dance, but on returning to Johannesburg as a white dance graduate, she felt lost in the rigidity of the country before apartheid ended. She set up a dance department in the Federal Union of Black Artists, where she could teach and choreograph energetically and anarchically.

This new piece, however, was originally fashioned with students at a theatre school in Johannesburg. They star in the production, which sees dance interwoven with song and narrative. "It gives me much more freedom, than working with professional dancers," says Orlin.

But the label "choreographer" does not sit comfortably. "It is too limiting. It brings up the question of what is choreography? Choreography is about making lights dance. For me, it is not just about pure movement, but something much bigger. Everything you see on stage, I concept-ualise myself."

Orlin uses much theatrical humour to deal with such a weighty subject as HIV/Aids. "At one point there is an image of a tall person - his head is a blown-up condom."

The piece begins with the performers crouching in the audience singing a psalm about loss while each holds a teddy bear or toy - "It's symbolic of the children left parentless because of Aids. They are the real victims," says Orlin.

'We Must Eat Our Suckers with the Wrappers on', Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (020-7638 8891; www.barbican.org.uk) tomorrow and 29 October