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Flash Review 2, 4-28: 'Bodies that Dance'
Dance>Detour & Momenta Focus on Abilities

By Renee E. D'Aoust
Copyright 2006 Renee E. D'Aoust

CHICAGO -- In the opening video montage of Bodies that Dance, a program seen April 21 at the Duncan YMCA's Chernin Center for the Performing Arts, Alana Wallace poignantly recalls how much she wanted to dance as a kid. A picture of a young child flashes on the screen, and Wallace says, "This is the girl who could walk." That was before polio and before she required a wheelchair for mobility. As the picture fades, Wallace says, "I never thought the world of dance could include me -- or anyone with a disability." The video ends, the curtains part, and there is Wallace in her wheelchair, a huge smile on her face, wheeling onto the stage.

Presented by Wallace's Dance>Detour company, one of about 30 mixed-ability or 'physically integrated' troupes worldwide, and Momenta, Bodies that Dance featured a collection of physically integrated dance works. Some of the performers were sight-impaired, others were in wheelchairs, one was a little person, and the majority showed no sign of disability. But as participant Kris Lenzo stated in the post-performance Q & A, "There's no such thing as somebody without a disability." The performances were part of Chicago's first-ever Festival of Disability Arts and Culture.

Dance>Detour was founded 1995 as Chicago's first physically integrated company. Momenta, which regularly performs the work of Doris Humphrey, was formed in 1983 by Stephanie Clemens, Larry Ippel, and James Tenuta. It is the resident company of the Academy of Movement and Music in nearby Oak Park, which Clemens and Ippel co-direct. Clemens started writing grant proposals to make the academy handicapped-accessible in 2000 and subsequently received a federal Community Development Block Grant. After parents raised $75,000 in matching funds to secure the federal grant, the school celebrated with performances using disabled and abled performers. Alana Wallace and Stephanie Clemens are powerhouses, incorporating dancers with disabilities into their performances and also making their shows accessible to audiences with disabilities who otherwise might not see dance. Both have a shared focus on the importance of inclusion of all bodies in dance training and performance; however, while Dance>Detour was created as a physically integrated dance company, Momenta has only recently performed works involving dancers who have disabilities.

Dance>Detour's finest piece on the program was Wallace's "If Only." I admit the meaning of the bourees eluded me, and the pointe shoes in this context seemed ironic. Nevertheless, despite my reservations, I appreciated the structure and form. "If Only" opens with a straightforward tableau: two women sitting on a bench. Wallace's most compelling works often include simple (I don't mean easy) gesture-based movement. As a choreographer, Wallace knows how to place bodies onstage, effectively using level changes necessitated by wheelchair dancers to advantage. Loss permeates "If Only." I read it as a creation myth about a wheel disembodied from the wheelchair, which lies on its side downstage right. The two dancers slide off the bench, another joins them, and the three strive for the chair by stretching and reaching along the diagonal. It isn't at all clear who needs the chair most. A fourth dancer -- this is the one on pointe -- reassembles the wheel to the chair, but by then it is too late. The three dancers have collapsed from their effort.

Later, Homes Hans Bryant used Tovah Collins, who displayed super pointe work, in a trio with Bryant and Wallace, who has an effusive stage presence. Collins moves with so little effort and such enormous confidence, it is utterly satisfying to watch her. In Bryant's "Dreams Reborn," Wallace's wheelchair work paired with Collins's pointe work yielded strikingly unexpected combinations.

The evening also included choreography by Ginger Lane, most notably "Convergence," a Chet Atkins honky-tonk. Kris Lenzo banged his wheelchair in tune to the music, and the audience laughed. It was indicative of the humorous aspects of the evening, the demystifying of disability, and I wished Lane had had the wheelchair dancer keep up the beat for the entire number.

In several of the pieces throughout the show, a dancer stepped up onto an occupied wheelchair and raised her leg into arabesque. But what can be performed as an obviously static position when done with the supporting leg on the floor looks to me even more static when done on a moving wheelchair. Perhaps it is because of the circular movement -- there are two wheels spinning underneath, after all. Yet if the dancer merely holds a position, it simply looks like the same position except done on a wheelchair. From a dancer's perspective, I think a duet with a partner who uses a wheelchair requires even more attention to breath, even more focus on expanding a moment, even more sense that the body should not become static within a musical phrase.

During the first half of the program, the audience clapped each time a dancer and a wheelchair dancer partnered. By the second half, I was glad that the audience had calmed down and seemed to agree that it was the whole gestalt of the event that mattered. For one thing, I've never seen so many people in wheelchairs attending a dance performance. As well, the eight middle-school-aged dancers from the academy in Oak Park, who performed Larry Ippel's "Beautiful Dance," demonstrated the importance of the event. In this tender work set to Carlos Nakai's flute rendition of "Amazing Grace," there were two young wheelchair dancers. At one moment, teenager Victoria Raymond's wheelchair was being pushed so quickly, a shy smile formed on her face. It looked as if she were moving faster and more freely than those performing jetes.

There was an abundance of nuanced musical phrasing when former Martha Graham company member Sandra Kaufmann performed a duet with Kris Lenzo, "Ashes." Choreographed by Tom Trimble with Johannah Wininsky, it is set to Gorecki's "Symphony No. 3 'Lento e Largo.'" In a program including dancers of varying levels, Kaufmann's subtle lyricism and Lenzo's incredible strength stood out. Sandra Kaufmann is a superb performer. I remember seeing her early in her career in Graham's "Celebration." There, her joy was addictive. Kaufmann's body was seasoned by Graham, but she wasn't hardened by that work. Here, in "Ashes," nothing is overblown, nor is it understated. Simplicity and grace reign, and Kaufmann is entirely focused yet ethereal at the same time. She catches just the right atmosphere of this woman and her lover. Kris Lenzo is a kind of otherworldly man, suspended above the stage in a harness. As the piece begins, Kaufmann hangs from Lenzo's arms. The effect is sublime. Lenzo holds her far above the stage, and her body becomes a pendulum. He lets her down. She runs away only to return. He lifts her by her left ankle and her right arm, she rotates over her body and back again, forming the shape of a fish dive. Then he quickly tucks her up into his arms, which is surprising after all this fluidity. I thought I wouldn't be able to stand it if he ever let her go. But he does, gently, painfully. Although Lenzo abandons Kaufmann to the Earth, I imagined that her fluttering body had joined the wind. In "Ashes," it isn't readily apparent that Lenzo does not have legs. But this knowledge makes his strength even more formidable. He has no legs to use as leverage while lifting Kaufmann. Only the harness holds him above the stage. Brute strength is impressive, but cast against Kaufmann's simple grace it is stunning.


While a dancer in New York City, Renee E. D'Aoust trained at the Martha Graham Center and performed with the Kevin Wynn Collection and other companies. She subsequently graduated from Columbia University (BA) and the University of Notre Dame (MFA). For her writing, which has been published in many literary journals, D'Aoust has received Idaho Arts Commission grants, the Julie Harris Award for Emerging Playwrights, and other awards. The first chapter, "Graham Crackers," of her current book project, Body of a Dancer, received an Associated Writers Program nonfiction award.

 

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