Mobilizing Bodies: Dance & Disability at 92Y, Petronio at The Joyce, & Work Up 3.1 at Gibney

Alice Sheppard

Let’s talk about euphemisms for a moment. I was schooled in the use of “differently-abled” in college during the late 80s. The school my kids go to is described as “inclusive” where children in wheelchairs (person-first language versus “wheelchair kids”) danced beside them during many an elementary school concert. I admit to still balking at the use of a pre-fix like “dis” before “ability” because of its negating or reversing task, linguistically speaking. Shifts in language reflect shifts in thinking, the 80s attempt was meant to equalize through difference instead of absence. Seemingly more positivist language than the hand-in-cap or lack of ability versions could neutralize oppressive belief systems, but, in the end, it erased and euthanized the struggle for increased understanding through a slight of semantic genteelism. But, in the company of artists like Jerron Herman and Alice Sheppard, at Edisa Week’s “Overturning Expectations: Dance and Disability,” curated for the 92Y Harkness Dance Center’s Fridays at Noon series on 3/31, all the polite aversions and circumlocution are crushed under foot and wheel. As Alice said during the talkback, “I don’t operate from a place of deficit or loss. This is the only dancing body I know.” At the intersection of race, gender and ability, these two showed and tell-ed us through an afternoon of contemplative, rigorous and innovative works and discussion.

Photo courtesy of Julie Lemberger

Choreographer Heidi Latsky‘s film Soliloquy played in the lobby and Karina Epperlein’s film Phoenix Dance began the formal program in the hall. Phoenix Dance is about the making of Pas, a pas de deux created for Homer Avila and Andrea Flores by choreographer Alonzo King. Homer had been the other half of Edisa’s Avila/Weeks Company. He died 13 years ago this month, but he danced with unceasing passion before and during a battle with cancer that resulted in the amputation of a leg and hip. The Dance Insider recently re-posted several messages and memories from various artists whose lives he’d touched. Homer’s Village Voice piece “Between a Rock and Hard Place” was a sobering call for better health care: Where I come from, it’s nothing special to sacrifice a little to fulfill your aspirations. But even the average American will agree that giving up a leg may be going too far. Refreshing my memory to that reminded me of the insistent, fierce urgency of this new now. Things have been very bad for very many, but it can get much worse. But, Homer, ever intrepid Homer, was the picture of persistence. I have a particular post-Context studios MR class, probably with David Dorfman, sidewalk talk (that went on longer than most coffee dates) memory of Homer. He’d overwhelmed and dazzled me in his performances with Edisa, but he was always effervescent and available in and out of class, truly in-love with dancing. After his amputation, he continued to model a dogged work ethic, after his lung cancer diagnosis he kept on working without seeking a lick of sympathy and watching him crumple and re-stand over and over and over in rehearsals with during the film stuns me, anatomically, kinesthetically, spiritually and emotionally. Rise. Rise. Like a phoenix, rise.

Photo courtesy of Julie Lemberger

Jerron Herman performed his solo Phys. Ed, a title worthy of inciting anxiety in many of us. In the work, he brings his athletic abilities and the “spastic extreme” of his Cerebral Palsy endowed condition of “dystonia” into a cohesive and personal dance. Dressed in a red uniform, Jerron’s dance was a reimagining of a memory. With an 8th grader who has played sick simply to avoid her morning gym class (at a school Jerron has guest taught at!), the adolescent angst component felt close to home. I empathized with the fraught nature of that school landscape, but felt the amplified struggle to prove oneself and keep up with the additional effort of managing muscles that don’t cooperate. It was frenetic, plaintive and physically exhausting to witness. Jerron arrived on the scene and began dancing 6 years ago as a member of Heidi Latsky Dance‘s GIMP Project. The GIMP Project expands the derogatory slang into its other definitions related to interwoven fabric and a fighting spirit. As a writer himself, Jerron has become an important new voice in the field, sharing his experiences and insight in the company’s development alongside helping to establish more dialogue and representation in our community by actively engaging with difference instead of diminishing it.

Photo courtesy of Julie Lemberger

Alice Sheppard performed two solos, So, I will wait and Trusting If/Believing When. Alice’s dance career ties directly back to a dare from Homer that altered her trajectory from a professor of Medieval Studies into an award winning artist. In her works, especially Trusting If/Believing When, we see a deep commitment to the exploration of movement potential. There is a classical sensibility that combines with a contemporary willingness to risk exposing the physical labor as real, as full of effort and management instead of hiding it behind studied ease. Her dances themselves are an example of disability-led design, her work in, under, above and around her wheelchair is powerful, graceful and daunting. At one point, in Trusting If/Believing When, she rolls on her back in a circle on the floor and we hear the chair’s rims, spokes and frame connect with the floor. It is a display of incredible physical prowess and the material reality of the apparatus that she is strapped into at that moment. At other moments, she undoes the strap and plays along the brink of possibilities. Throughout, she hovers and plunges, bringing us back again and again to the edge where both crashing and gliding are options, but she repeatedly soars.

Stephen Petronio offered the 3rd season of his 5-year Bloodlines project for his company at The Joyce last week. The project honors a lineage of American postmodern dance that has shaped the accomplished choreographer.  This program included works by Yvonne Rainer.  Diagonal (1963) opened the show. Amidst the soothing sound of their sneakers treading on the marley dance floor, dancers Ernesto Breton, Davalois Fearon, Kyle Filley, Jaqlin Medlock, Tess Montoya, and Megan Wright would call out numbers or letters that would decide the manner in which they would diagonally cross the stage – for instance, “5” meant a spread-legged, walk on the balls of the feet, with arms held up and cheeks blown out into bubble. The task-based, pedestrian-ness complimented the complexity of attending to instantaneous choice making amidst a scored group composition before a paying audience. Trio A with Flags (1966/1970) was performed once naked, but for flags (a gesture of political defiance), by Nicholas Sciscione, Joshua Tuason and Wright and once in street clothes by Fearon, Filley, Medlock and Montoya. I preferred the first rendition, every ripple and rotation was available for view on at least one body at any given moment and the flacid Stars and Stripes felt particularly poignant amidst an era of excessive testosteronical posturing. Observing the simple musicality of sitting, standing and dropping one’s pillow in her Chair-Pillow (1969), reminded me that an endless array of large-cast, college, guest repertory works that use basic movement tasks to offer inclusive performance opportunities were once revolutionary challenges to the demands of virtuosic displays in dance. Nicholas Sciscione’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Excerpt from Goldberg Variations (1986) was the highlight of an excellent program. Several years ago, scholar Ramsay Burt used philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1940 reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus painting (in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) as an entry point into examining Paxton’s improvisations in his Steve Paxton’s Goldberg Variations and the Angel of History. Watching Sciscione’s exquisite and precise execution of what was once instantaneous composition and exploration was almost unendurably beautiful, like an angel descended. As we watched his sinewy back ripple and roil, it could have been easy to image wings unfolding. Petronio performed Anna Halprin’s 1999 The Courtesan and The Crone and the completed the program by delivering yet another luscious, full-company work Untitled Touch, with an original score by longtime collaborator Son Lux.

Camilla Davis in Kareem Alexander’s “I Only Stop When I Am Full”

This weekend, Gibney Dance is presenting their first batch of Work Up 3.0 artists. As Ben Pryor, Director of Performance and Residency Program’s noted in the program, this is the 3rd year of one of Gibney’s first performance programs. This month Work Up supports emerging dance and performance artists through a series of three shared-bill performances and an exhibition in the Gibney Dance Gallery. The first night featured Kareem Alexander’s I Only Stop When I Am Full, a work that began as a look into his own exhaustion but, according to the talkback, shifted once he was in the studio with fellow former Hunter College students Camilla Maria Davis, Keiry Abril Amparo, and Janice Tomlinson. “That was in my mind, but in rehearsal it started being about being black as hell!” A couple years away from these good people, I soaked in the juicy goodness of researching rotating hips and some serious left-jabs. Rachel Sigrid Freeburg collaborated with s. lumber (and a plant) for her gentle and intertwined Still Life, Back There: a dyke-otomy. Millie Heckler and Samantha Lysaght’s Giving Yourself to Me Could Never Be Wrong indulged in excessive consumption and endurance. Work Up 3.1 continues tonight at 8pm and returns with new programs on 4/14-15 and 21-22.


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