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.