Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mobility, Movement, And The Bind Of A Chair

In a recent talkback, someone familiar with the company commented that they had never seen the disabled dancers move so much.

That compliment caught my attention.

The piece in question is very different from anything else in our rep. We break a sweat, yes.  But I am not racing around, pulling extreme wheelchair moves.  I'm not exactly grounded, but I am dancing in the much more spatially limited context of my new props.  So, the first thing that caught my ear was my default assumption that movement -- the moving of any part of my body -- was sort of bound up with mobility -- my ability to traverse space both while moving parts of my body other than those parts necessary to push my chair and/or simply moving my chair.  Movement and mobility are not necessarily the same.  You'd think that I might have figured that out a while ago.  But apparently not.

As dancers, we are always seeking new movement.  We train in different sets of movements and create new vocabularies of movement as we work in different settings, with different people, on different pieces.  So, of course, working with props enables us to create new movement vocabularies.  That's exactly the point.  Thinking as a dancer, though, confused me.  For a moment, I had forgotten that I was a disabled dancer and that for us things often have second and third layers of meaning that come along with people's understandings of disability.

But even landing on this nuance didn't really help me understand what the commenter was seeing.  What drew their attention so much, what compelled them so much that they spoke out?

Talking with another dancer, a best guess was that the piece has us working out of our wheelchairs for most of the time.  Just being out of a chair renders more of our flesh bodies visible to the audience.  And, of course, as dancers, we are using those bodies fully.  The commenter was simply responding to seeing new lines, new shapes, new movement vocabulary as we worked outside our chairs.

That's a neutral guess.  But I wonder about the disability value of this.  What do people see when they see us dancing in chairs?  Do they think that the chairs compensate for our legs and therewith unintentionally erase our legs?  Do they have images of us as flexible flesh upper bodies and rigid rubber and metal lower bodies?  (Laurel's been really helpful in thinking about this one: here, for example.)  Thus, when the commenter saw us moving around outside our wheelchairs, they saw, perhaps for the first time in their conscious mind, the full potential of our flesh bodies.

I'm really sensitive on this point.  Is it possible that in other pieces, our hybrid metal and flesh bodies have become props?  When the choreography is weak, the dance tends to feature a lot of moments when the non-disabled dancers jump on us, use our bodies and chairs as furniture, points of leverage that they can use to do something fantastic and eye catching.  Meanwhile, we sit there.  When the choreography is strong, we get to dance into moments of shared fantasticness -- moves where we are as active as they are.  When I heard the commenter speak, I began to review other works that they might have seen.  Have I felt like a prop?  Do I look like one?

As I finish my review of five years of rep, I find myself overcome with a little cynicism.  I'm betting that there's some wheelchair-boundedness going on here.  If you start with the idea that because we are strapped in to our chairs (necessary to do the cartwheels and rolls and things that we do), we are bound to our chairs in a societally conventional wheelchair bound kind of way, it makes sense to think of us moving more now that we are moving with props (link to some of my posts on wheelchair-bound).  No, we are not flying around stage, but we are liberated from those nasty binding little wheelchair things.  And now, suddenly, we are free.  You can see our full fleshly bodies at work.

The post-show talkbacks are really difficult for me to be in.  But you can be sure that I am listening.  Attentively.  I learn a lot from you about what I do.

3 comments:

  1. "When the choreography is weak, the dance tends to feature a lot of moments when the non-disabled dancers jump on us, use our bodies and chairs as furniture, points of leverage that they can use to do something fantastic and eye catching. Meanwhile, we sit there. When the choreography is strong, we get to dance into moments of shared fantasticness -- moves where we are as active as they are."

    I had thought the same watching a friend of mine who dances in a wheelchair.
    I had sometimes felt the wheelchairs were props, "look how cool we are" sort of thing, and as you say, a place for "abled" dancers to contort and jump over.

    But in some of his pieces they move out of the chairs, move on the floor, or get up and walk with the support of other dancers... different ideas but expressing art with their whole bodies. This is beautiful, much more touching, and you feel they are no longer props.

    PS: My friend's group, in Barcelona / Spain: https://www.facebook.com/groups/danzaintegrada/

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  2. Unfortunately, I think you've probably nailed it. Looking back at commentary, I've heard the same thing after pieces where I was out of my chair, as well as the "freeing" narrative. Which, yes, bugs the crap out of me; I want to jump up and point out that it's exactly the other way around.

    I would go so far as to say that avoiding 'proppiness' is one of our major choreographic points. However, I don't know how to direct people away from the bound-narrative, especially when strapping is mandatory. On the whole, we don't emphasize it (although we don't hide it either). It makes me curious about the reaction if we did a really physical piece costumed in white, with the black straps.

    We haven't done a piece lately that featured dancers with disabilities out of their chairs, and there have also been fewer questions in talkbacks about 'do you really need those chairs?' (which used to be a feature of every single one). I don't know if that might be related, or if it's simply a result of the dancers or the choreography now. I'm not optimistic enough to think it's because of an exterior shift in audience perception.

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  3. One man's comment and perception may be just that. It could be that this was just the way that particular guy saw it, and not necessarily some universal or culturally uniform response.

    I know that there are in fact people in this world with disabilities like paraplegia and similar who don't have a wheelchair but who do work for a living-often they live in the third world including rural areas where these things are not available. I've also seen stories about paraplegics who live with braces and crutches rather than wheelchair, and about some robot walk thing invented in Israel.

    I'm not sure, however, whether most physical therapists and doctors with a lot of experience would generally recommend that, or if and how much it would actually make anybody's life better.

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