Physically Integrated Dance Comes of Age

The last act of the 2008 Sins Invalid performance opened with a dark stage backlit with dusk-blue. To the sound of a pulsing Maori keening chant with techno highlights, wheelchair dancer Rodney Bell slowly lowered down onto the stage via cables. Sometimes dangling upside down, sometimes appearing to somersault, Bell, a T3-6 para, gyrated along the way. He slapped his chest and thighs — warlike gestures punctuated with grunts — and when he finally had all four wheels on the ground, his face, painted with traditional tattoos, appeared to the audience. The dance, sensual and aggressive, might have been a holy ritual.

“In the opening piece I’m portrayed as being crucified and get carried up into the air off the stage,” says Bell, 39. “So in the last piece I come down. Inside I felt like one of the Maori weather gods, descending down from being crucified, and also coming back empowered as a person with a disability, with my full sexuality and sensuality intact.”

Although Bell participates in Sins Invalid performances, his day job is as a professional dancer with AXIS Dance, a physically integrated dance company based in Oakland, Calif. He moved to Oakland from New Zealand, where he danced with Touch Compass.

Physically integrated dance is performed by people with and without disabilities, together on the same stage or as part of the same piece of choreography. Each company is different, as is each region of the nation and each audience. Dancing Wheels in Cleveland, with its offerings of stories such as “Alice in Wonderland,” is much more family-oriented than, say, GIMP in New York City’s volatile “Two Man Walking” or AXIS in Oakland’s steamy “Color Me Different.” But what all of these three professional dance companies have in common is a strong sense of athleticism and aestheticism, as should be expected from people who dance for a living.

“Physically integrated dance is really, really exciting,” says Judith Smith, artistic director of AXIS Dance. “It’s accessible in a way most modern and contemporary dance isn’t, because you get to see people you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as dancers dancing.”

And oh, how they dance.

AXIS Dance Company
“Art is what changes the world, and it’s wonderful to change people’s ideas by giving them dance rather than telling them they should think or feel a certain way. They get to watch us and stare at us for two hours and come to their own conclusions,” says Smith, who became a quad at age 17 as a result of a car accident. “Speaking for myself, I went to Craig Rehab and came out not very independent at all. It was through dance that I learned all those things I didn’t learn in rehab. Dance completely changed my relationship to my body, my muscle strength, my balance, my coordination, all of that.”

When you dance, all of who you are becomes important. For example, some of the AXIS dancers, such as Smith, use power wheelchairs, which are useful tools. “Power chairs are strong, they can carry a person for a long time. We had three dancers with me on my chair and two with another dancer on hers. Most people can’t do that. They can’t carry three other people,” she says.

The company began in 1987, when people with and without physical disabilities dancing together was still new. Any and all were welcome to dance, regardless of ability or talent. This was a fun, creative time in the life of the company, but as the AXIS website says, “it wasn’t always easy convincing some that AXIS was creating dance and not ‘just doing therapy.’”

In 1997 Smith took over the company’s co-direction, along with Nicole Richter, and AXIS evolved into a respected professional dance company. But at the same time, dance classes and disability outreach continued.

“So we did two things,” says Smith, sole director of AXIS since 2001. “We radically changed how we were doing our artistic work by bringing in outside choreographers, and we expanded and reorganized our education program.”

The education component meets the need for people with disabilities of all ages and ability levels to move and dance, so that piece of the company’s history isn’t lost. And allowing a strong focus on the artistic work has resulted in numerous dance awards, including seven ‘Izzies’, or, Isadora Duncan Dance Awards.

This month’s New Mobility cover is taken from the 2007 dance, “The beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping,” choreographed by Joe Goode. It features Rodney Bell and nondisabled dancer Sonshorée Giles. Bell is an extraordinary athlete. During the duet he dances himself onto his side, while Giles, prone on his rear wheel, rhythmically spins in the air. Simultaneously, Bell moves himself counter to the spin. The performance is quite sensual, as well as surprising.

“When I dance I am paying as much attention to my chair as it is supporting me, so we are one,” says Bell about his dancing style. He has used a wheelchair for 19 years, ever since a motorcycle accident when he was 20, back home in New Zealand. Always physical, Bell first discovered wheelchair basketball. Dance, while just as athletic, is more enjoyable.

“At AXIS we can practice up to six hours a day with just a couple of breaks. But when I’m dancing and thinking of how I move, I don’t really get tired. Or, I do, but I don’t notice,” Bell says. Also, he says when he dances, it’s for all the different communities he represents. “For our disability culture, obviously, but also the dance culture and my Maori culture, all those layers. I just want to offer my basket,” Bell says, citing a Maori proverb. “I bring my basket, others bring theirs, and with our baskets together we’ve got more to offer.”

• AXIS Dance Company, 510/625-0110; www.axisdance.org.

The GIMP Project

GIMP photo by Carlos Arias

GIMP photo by Carlos Arias

The video clip of choreographer Heidi Latsky’s GIMP Project has a Cirque du Soleil feel to it, with a few notable differences. The acrobatic dancers who whirl through the air with their red silks and tumble on the floor as often as not may be missing legs, or arms, or parts of arms, or have a distinct palsied gait.

And yet, it works. It’s attractive and, after a few moments of disorientation, compelling.

GIMP is different than most other physically integrated dance projects in that wheelchairs are not seen on the stage. Lisa Buffano, the woman with no legs, flies through the air, but doesn’t roll on the floor. The man with CP, well-known disability advocate Lawrence Carter-Long, does roll on the floor, especially in the volatile, homoerotic duet with nondisabled dancer Jeffrey Freeze called “Two Men Walking.” But he doesn’t roll on wheels.

“Working with Lawrence, he never stretched his arms,” says Latsky, the mastermind of GIMP. “And he’s got such long, beautiful arms, so we worked with that. So then I asked him, ‘What else do you do well?’ He said he falls really well, and so we explored falling.”

Really, says Carter-Long, “What Heidi actually said to me is ‘I’ve had enough of the pretty arm shit, what else can you do?’ I told her I fall really, really well, and she said, ‘Show me.’ And that’s the type of relationship we have. Nothing is off the table.”

So they decided to have fun with falling. “In the construction of the piece there’s a point when I’m staring at the audience, and I explode, running directly toward them, and then I fall, as close to the edge of the stage as I can. There’s never a time we do that where nobody gasps. They don’t know if that’s on purpose, or part of the choreography. That’s one of those things that’s provocative for the audience and fun for me.” Carter-Long, 43, has a distinct CP gait and uses a wheelchair for distances, so part of the shock is watching him run.

“When Heidi first said, ‘Hey, I love the way you move, I’d love to work with you, I said, ‘Holy crap, how am I going to do that?’ I couldn’t conceive of myself as a dancer. I knew I had to go for it,” Carter-Long says. “If you had told me three years ago I’d be a modern dancer, I’d ask what you were smoking and where could I get it.”

Latsky is captivated by integrated dance and movement – it challenges her to grow as an artist. “I’m fascinated by this kind of organic movement, and it frustrates me because I don’t know how to do it anymore,” Latsky says.  “Working with people who have disabilities has affected my trajectory as a choreographer. I’m trying to find my own organic way of moving. How can I do that after 30 years?”

• The GIMP Project, 917/929-6985; www.thegimpproject.com.

Dancing Wheels
Mary Verdi-Fletcher, founder of Dancing Wheels, is the first wheelchair user to perform as a professional dancer in the United States. Born with spina bifida, Verdi-Fletcher founded the Dancing Wheels Company in Cleveland so that she could offer others with disabilities the chance to discover dance.

DanceAbility photo by Gil Grossi

DanceAbility photo by Gil Grossi

The company is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, a milestone for the whole genre, not just Dancing Wheels. “It’s flown by, the 30 years have gone by like a blink of the eye,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “It started out with just my desire to dance, and that stemmed from my mother who was a professional dancer and my father who was a musician.”

Even though her mother taught her basic movement, Verdi-Fletcher had nowhere to go and no one to emulate to learn the finer points of professional dance. Still, she had to move, so she performed in nursing care facilities around the city, which is how she finally broke into the field. “The artistic director of the Cleveland Ballet was visiting a friend where I was performing, and he was struck by what he had seen. He had never seen a wheelchair user dance at that level before.”

They struck up a correspondence and at one point she told him she’d love to do something with the Cleveland Ballet. It took over a year, but they developed an outreach and education program both to dancers and to the local community. And Verdi-Fletcher finally received the higher level of training she craved.

“I was able to train with the dancers, take classes, and then develop my own classes.” And thus was Dancing Wheels born.

Dancing done right is hard work, says Verdi-Fletcher. “It’s artful movement, but it’s athletic movement. Like sports, it all stems from a technique. And it takes precision, endurance, and most of the time you try to increase your strength so you have flexibility,” she says. “But you also are moving to the sounds of music or various counts of a choreographer, so you have to stay in the realm of your partner so you’re moving in unison.”

Dancing Wheels’ performances often appeal to families, such as a dance called “Snowman” that shows both sit-down and stand-up dancers — as the company refers to those who use or don’t use wheelchairs — engaging in snowball battles, building snowmen and other fun winter activities. Yet there are some pieces, such as “Walking on Clouds,” that deal with serious topics, like how it feels to be discriminated against because of disability or race.

“Most companies today are looking at going beyond the norm, to find what’s next, what they can do that’s outside the box in terms of dance,” says Dancing Wheels’ Mary Verdi-Fletcher. Photo by Dale Dong

Dancing Wheels has a repertoire of over 40 dances, and many of the selections shown on the website are fun, laced with whimsy. “Alice in Wonderland” showcases this, with colorful costumes, upbeat music and theatrical touches by the dancers that keep the pace moving. Also, a sit-down dancer plays with a device that stands her up … and up and up! … for she has grown to an astonishing height, as the book says. So the sit-down dancers don’t always sit. Neither, for that matter, do the stand-up dancers always stand. It’s fun to watch a dancer tumble out of her chair, and then just keep tumbling across the stage — she didn’t fall out at all, it was part of the choreography.

The trick is to keep moving, keep growing, and keep trying out new ideas.

“We have a wide range of audience,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “Stories appeal to parents, children and grandparents. But then this month we’re going to be working on Ingenuity with another company, mixing technology and art together. Plus, we’ll be working with NASA on dancing in zero gravity, moving through space — on not using your legs, whether you’re a stand-up or sit-down dancer.”

Currently Verdi-Fletcher is developing a manual on her company’s style of physically integrated dance. “There have been many requests, and people in academia right now don’t know how to get started on the college level when they have a student taking a class,” she says. “There’s just always something new.”

• Dancing Wheels Company and School, 216/432-0306; www.dancingwheels.org.

 

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