Stephanie Martinez’ ‘Purple Skin’: Five minutes of dance in the middle of a pandemic election

On Thursday, more than 120,000 Americans were diagnosed with COVID-19. It was the worst day yet for the pandemic, far exceeding the previous record for new infections, which was set Wednesday. On Friday, we broke that record again. A mysterious, incurable disease is ravaging this country. From the upper echelons of the government, there is distraction and denial, at best.

For those in the gay community who lived through the AIDS crisis, this is all too familiar. The entanglement of politics and public health was especially heightened by an epidemic about which little was known. Because AIDS disproportionately affected gay people, those infected faced not just a frightening disease with no cure but also stigma and discrimination.

The lack of a response to HIV/AIDS—since 1981, more than 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS-related complications—is what drove survivors and allies to create a robust network of charities and social service organizations; many of these still exist and serve the more than one million Americans living with HIV/AIDS.

In her latest work, choreographer Stephanie Martinez examines the AIDS crisis through the lens of one woman: Lori Cannon. Titled “Purple Skin,” the new dance for the camera (created with Chicago filmmaker Dean Berdusis) is part of a four-part series called SKETCH, an annual laboratory produced by San Francisco dance company Imagery.

“Purple Skin” premiered online Thursday and is freely available Monday on Imagery’s website.

With that livestreamed premiere came what we now recognize as the typical frustrations of watching dance online: buffering, glitchy connections, presenters forgetting to unmute and on and on. On this particular night, my patience was thin. I desperately wanted to bail as soon as the technology didn’t work, feeling the pull of Steve Kornacki at the big board as votes steadily came in from Arizona and Pennsylvania. It felt unnecessary and rather silly to frame a live, ticketed event around a five-minute film in the middle of the election, padded by superfluous talk-backs and trailers.

Alas, it is a beautiful and captivating five-minute film. Opening with dancer Joseph A. Hernandez, Martinez moves from solo to duet with a pas de deux on Hernandez and Kelsey McFalls. The two dancers have a history in the Bay Area but now live in Chicago, most recently appearing in the evening-length live debut of Martinez’ new company, Para.Mar.

They make a glorious pair, glistening against a background of glittery Lake Michigan beachfront—a gorgeous, if cliché, location that shares time with a fancily appointed apartment and GroceryLand, an Edgewater food pantry serving people with AIDS. Hernandez swipes at his skin, tugging and wrenching his body as if fighting against the inevitable attrition of an incurable disease. Underneath is a consistent crescendo of strings composed by Kishi Basi and Emily Hope Price, who’ve created original scores for all four films in SKETCH, and Lori Cannon’s voice as she talks about the steps people took to hide skin lesions and weakening bodies as AIDS took over.

It matters that McFalls touches Hernandez. She similarly glides her hands across his chest but with a more tender, supportive ethos. At the height of the AIDS crisis, rumors about how and where one could catch the disease resulted in stigma and disinformation around something as simple as holding hands with someone who had it. Now, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is palpable fear about the risks taken by simply sharing the air with someone else. (McFalls and Hernadez live together and share a “bubble”.)

“Purple Skin” lies somewhere between dance film and documentary, ending with a shot of Cannon in the original GroceryLand—an eclectic, homey spot. Throughout the ‘80s, Cannon’s friends were dying all around her. She’s been through a pandemic before, she says as she puts on a mask at the end of the film, tucking the elastic ear straps under radiant, crimson hair. In 1988, Cannon co-founded Open Hand Chicago, which borrowed from the Meals on Wheels model to deliver prepared food to people living with AIDS. In 1994, she opened GroceryLand, which now has multiple locations. One senses the gravity of the trauma she and so many others endured as friends and family died at an unfathomable rate. Yet her spirit is definitively light, hopeful, resilient and maternal.

Whatever complications happened during Thursday’s livestream, “Purple Skin” itself is practically flawless, perhaps best viewed on your own time, in combination with other previously released SKETCH films by Imagery artistic director Seiwert and Jennifer Archibald. Considered together, these morsels arrive at something that feels like dance made for the moment, rather than in spite of it. Indeed, Martinez’ ability to lean into newly found creative energy since the pandemic began has yielded the best work of her career.