Chris Mason Johnson was a professional dancer during in the ’80s, a perilous time for gay men as the AIDS epidemic raged out of control. Johnson chronicles those times as writer-director of "Test," which is set in San Francisco in 1985. With poignancy and narrative economy, Johnson explores the communal fear of the insular dance world of the time, where gay men may have been a dominant presence, but were expected to remain closeted, and, thanks to the AIDS crisis, needed to cope with multiple stigmas.
In the film, Frankie, a dancer waiting for his chance center stage in a small modern troupe, is starting to feel unsteady physically and becomes paranoid as the epidemic seizes San Francisco. Misinformation about HIV-AIDS is rampant, gay men are being kicked out of their apartments, and fellow dancers are afraid to be partners lest they sweat on each other.
A choreographer yells at Frankie during rehearsal "I don’t care who you fuck, but I care how you dance. Dance like a man." Meanwhile, the men in the cast definitely think the ballet they are rehearsing is about gay sex. Later, Frankie confides to his friend Todd that he is not out to his parents, and Todd snarkily tells him "You come out by dying." Frankie decides instead to undergo the newly developed HIV test. Meanwhile, paranoia doesn’t stop Frankie from having unprotected sexual encounters.
The AIDS crisis and the backstage dance world don’t spell riveting screen drama; Johnson goes for more of a quiet character study of the dancers and the private struggles of this era.
Meanwhile, the dance sequences are filmed well, so you get a real sense of New York choreographer Sidra Bell’s sexualized expressionism laced with sweaty balletics, very true to the period in contemporary dance. Scott Marlowe is a wonderful dancer and plays Frankie with an understated charm, but it is Matthew Risch who is the scene-stealer as the hedonistic dance hunk who has more to him than those lusty turns. Marlowe is the artistic director of LEVYdance, and the cast includes dancers from San Francisco Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet.
Club music pastiche mashes with The Cure, Eurhythmics and Billy Idol and a great ending dance sequence set to Jimmy Somerville’s "Small-town Boy." Johnson’s light dramatic touch is refreshing and, really, a dance film without anorexic, self-abusing ballerinas and maniacal choreographers is always welcome.