Stare Back: Individuality On Display
Times Square Sculpture Court: Heidi Latsky Dance
The cavernous space of the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center produces a frenetic echo on October 1, our premiere; even though there are moments when no one speaks, the viewers’ energy is palpable. These viewers have happened upon us, whether by word of mouth, special email, or the inquisitive draw from the view through the windows. Whoever is here this night has stepped into a living gallery of we, the 28 sculptures. I am standing on a marble bench at the west end of the public performance space alongside five other dancers: an older ballerina, a tall brown man, a skinny white woman with a burst of purple in her hair, a busty youth, a transitioning man, and me, a black disabled guy. Though we have many characteristics, we are positioning ourselves to be viewed singularly — at least at first. A slight turn to my left and I see our Indian hip hop/modern dancer, or our spastic, seated mover who has Cerebral Palsy; the space opens to include wheelchair users and flexible redheads, pregnant executives and balletic freaks of nature. For two hours this movement installation visibly transfixes our viewership, who listens to the same thing we do: a robotic score of limiting words and phrases to describe a person.
Sex, age, race, height, eye color, hair, body type, three facial/noticeable features, arms/hands, legs/feet, a distinguishing characteristic
And yet: wearing original clothing by an up-and-coming designer, a beautiful film projected above us, and some pre-determined choreography within us, we become individual. With every circle of our back, rotation of our shoulder, jerk of our knee, we are communicating ourselves, our stories. We move as a unit until the spoken cue, “raspy voice,” when we stop on a dime in the pose of our choice. The lights flicker off, the film dissipates, and riotous applause begins. This is ON DISPLAY. I had the pleasure of writing the spoken text for the installation, but never actually characterized anyone in the cast. They were tasked, instead, with countering the text’s rigidity. This whole piece is about countering text’s rigidity.
In preparation for our next installation at the NYU/Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, November 15, I’m going to introduce you to some of the cast. I will leave it up to you to meet the rest.
Female, 39, Black, 5’8”, brown eyes, black hair, Josephine Baker-esque slight frame, freckles over her cheeks, sleek eyebrows, smooth nose, lean long legs, long digits, hourglass shape.
We started in the summer. I had just become an administrative associate for Heidi Latsky Dance (HLD) in addition to performing with the company: a physically integrated professional modern dance company in NYC. The artistic director, Heidi, was holding an audition at NYU for ON DISPLAY and was looking to expand our reach. The concept was simple: a movement installation to display who we really are in spite of clinical terms that say otherwise. The city was already engulfed in the fanfare of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, holding rallies and parades throughout the month of July. HLD had been invited by the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities to coordinate several events for the celebration, at the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Times Square, among other places. With a deaf flash mob in the works and a wheelchair athletes performance set, another element surfaced to expose to the public the depth of disability. We called them sculpture courts.
Male, 28, Asian, 5’6”, black pupils, half shaved black hair, athletic build, round cheeks, long eyelashes, pinched nose, curved back when he stands, skinny legs, clubbed feet, uses a wheelchair.
The best and worst of them was the day the film Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation held a special event in our spot in Times Square. Imagine screaming Tom Cruise fans littering the already crowded Duffy Square, a ridiculous erected barrier with the film’s title, and us: a gang of sculptures in black. The cast had taken to going out to Times Square to practice the elements of the installation – focus, presence, and connection – in real effect after rehearsal. A board member had created space on the CNN jumbotron for ten days in celebration of the ADA; four splices of film displayed different bodies from HLD in movement. A virtual and physical presence of the company’s work in Times Square seemed too serendipitous to miss. The previous two times we’d rehearsed in this area were considerably more docile; we stood still in front of catatonic TKTS employees or surprised foreign tourists on their way to the M&Ms store. Nevertheless we had heard positive and perplexed reactions from interested passersby.
The corner of 47th and Broadway had transformed into our very own playground. I remember this Mission: Impossible sculpture court well because it was the first time I felt myself sink into character. Standing next to our handsome, white, 6’8” cast member, I couldn’t block out the hilarious observations about him from the full-on peanut gallery ten feet in front of me. Here I am, trying to get my zen on, and a few flamboyant black guys couldn’t stop talking. Their candor was actually marvelous; it was as if their mocking/praise was directing me to stare them down, be fierce, be worthy of their gawking. When I did embrace their stares (or my cast mate’s stare) and reacted back, they loved it; whooping and hollering at my sass or my own commentary, they watched deeper. Maybe they said something to make me react: noticing my palsied arm or talking about me in deference to my 6’8” cast mate. Our group and their group had suddenly begun a dialogue on beauty, masculinity, race, and ability in the span of that hour saying a word. Who would’ve thought it was all thanks to Tom Cruise?
Female, late 20s, white, 5’5”, expressive black pupils, brown short hair, thin build, medium bust, lean legs, sharp nose, full cheeks, missing three fingers on right hand.
Brooklyn Bridge Park was illuminated on this gorgeous Saturday. As the cast walked to the pier where we would perform SOMEWHERE from HLD repertory and the sculpture court, Instagram posts popped in the air like champagne corks; no one could miss this view. Our cast had grown; each day in rehearsal new bodies would find their sculptural pose. Our ON DISPLAY members spread out and suspended in dramatic poses reminiscent of ancient Greek mythos. As we’d learned in Times Square and Chinatown, it’s surprising and beautiful to be happened upon by passersby. Families with strollers passed our cast mates, sometimes catching a glance, and crowds gathered to make sense of the event. It didn’t matter how they came upon us; those who came always stayed.
Male, late 30s, Native American, 6’3”, warm black pupils, long black wavy hair, extremely thin frame, high cheekbones, wide nose, no hips, long legs, mocha skin.
The ON DISPLAY cast was totally in sync by our final summer event at the High Line. Tucked away just beyond the food trucks somewhere around 19th Street, we were presenting ON DISPLAY with the overheard text for the first time; the robotic voice spewing “objective” characteristics. Heidi was still choreographing the piece which kept us all alert; listening to and remembering our text while changes were made, we were always thinking about what pose to make and also what side of us to reveal to viewers. We worked like this for about two hours. It was July 31st, technically the end of our creative contract: for the whole month we had worked and presented, danced, moved, and opened eyes through our generosity of spirit and slight edge. We would not have any rehearsals for a while and we would certainly lose some original members and restart in new ways. That fact is harrowing for any project, especially one centered on creating a new format of presentation. HLD is a modern dance company typically presented in theater spaces, yet now we have a new platform; an installation of unexpected bodies. This format expanded HLD’s vision within months versus years of development. Though the outline of our piece had been set, we hadn’t quite finished by the time our rehearsal ended.
The frenzy of July cooled once the formal ON DISPLAY run closed, giving us a cautionary chill. Not wanting to leave that space of creativity and action, we began another court installation. Heidi knowingly let those who had been relentlessly working throughout July sit out. Those relatively new to the process decided to stay. I remember dropping out of performance mode and taking it easy watching my comrades stay still. I also remember the pull to rejoin them and eventually taking my spot among them. Soon, everyone who initially sat out found themselves back in performance, back in vulnerability. We all cried and clapped once it was done. Creating a circle, Heidi expressed her deep gratitude to this new group and in turn we expressed to each other deep gratitude for expanding our purview. The local, communal, and possibly global effect of ON DISPLAY is dwarfed only by the personal effect it has on the individual both viewing it and being viewed in it. It changes us.
Female, early 30s, 5”0’, Latina, long light brown hair, almond brown eyes, small frame, petite nose, arched eyebrows, small ears, invisible neck, boxed body with outstretched torso, long arms, skinny fingers, balletic feet.
The NYU/Skirball Center performance represents disabled and physically integrated work’s growing presence in the mainstream. It represents its vigor, beauty, and professional capacity to drive past kitsch, community-oriented, or therapeutic. It gives light to the individuals who are worthy of being seen, giving them the chance to effectively stare back.