Saturday, February 12, 2011

The politics of "disability" on stage

There is no lack of precedent when it comes to the exhibition of disabled bodies on stage.

We have all seen the Youtube phenomenon of Chinese amputee dancers who perform a ballet. Some titles of the video are more successful than others in their attempt at political correctness.
This video chose "She without arm, he without leg--ballet--hand in hand."

While the spectacle of the above video is undeniable, other dance companies have attempted to approach disability and dance in a more collaborative manner. Companies such as AXIS Dance company and The GIMP Project present "abled" bodies and "disabled" bodies side by side in choreography. Heidi Latsky, artistic director and choreographer of GIMP, speaks to highlighting the specific idiosyncrasies and unique elements of each dancer body despite its anatomy. Each dancer is asked to capitalize on the shape of their body, whatever it may be. There is no judgment surrounding a body that is too much in some places and too little in others.

There is a virtuosity to the performance that allows for bodies that were previously seen as DISabled to be viewed as specifically MORE abled on stage. Catherine Long, of GIMP, cites her ability to reclaim a sense of power when it comes to others' gaze upon her body: "I'm inviting people to look at me, and I'm controlling the looking, whereas when I'm in the street I'm not inviting people to look at me, but they do anyway."

The AXIS Dance Company, in this clip choreographed by contemporary icon Alex Ketley, serves a similar purpose as persons in wheelchairs dance alongside dancers not in wheelchairs.

These companies have long been commended (as seen in the NYTimes clip) for redefining the audience's notion of a "dancer". The work not only challenges the viewer's conception of the abilities of a disabled person, but I imagine that it also challenges the person's own conception of his/her own self-efficacy.

However, while these performances have the power to revolutionize concepts of beauty, creativity, and performance as it relates to disabled bodies--there has also been a dialectic surrounding the exploitation of disabled bodies in performance. Latsky, herself, stems from a background with Bill T Jones who Arlene Croce of The New Yorker so notoriously deemed a creator of "victim art" that was "beyond criticism" because of its portrayal of sick bodies on stage. While I will not enter into the politic of the exotified "different" body as it relates to the colonizing gaze (at this juncture), I will re-articulate the unease I feel around the separation of disabled performer and audience which emphasizes the spectacle of the disabled body, as well as the juxtaposition of "abled" (read: normal, normative?) body dancer alongside the "dis-abled" body dancer.

Ultimately, all of these examples are a superfluous way of explaining my hesitancy and unease around working with disabled bodies in a performance context. I simply am untrained and unprepared to do so at this point. Moreover, while the movement toward disabled persons' rights has gained ground in the U.S., there is not necessarily an equivalent advocacy for disabled persons in Vietnam. There simply is no disability culture. But before the U.S. sits on its laurels, I will reiterate that there is still a bifurcation between what is deemed "normal" and what is deemed "other," and the exhibition of such dichotomies are not limited to physical disabilities as they are commonly understood.

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