Thursday, May 12, 2016

Movement Research presents "Body Disrupt" at Abrons

Mat Fraser as The Beast
(with Jonny Dixon and Jess Mabel Jones)
in the 2014 production of
Beauty and the Beast at Abrons Arts Center
(photo: Sheila Burnett)

Below: Julie Atlas Muz as Beauty
(photo: Sin Bozkurt)

Artists with disabilities and artists whose work disrupts normative notions of what constitutes a dancing body will come together in conversation.
 --about Body Disrupt, a Movement Research Studies Project panel

Body Disrupt
--a panel convened and moderated by dance artist Kathy Westwater at Abrons Arts Center for Movement Research--left my head buzzing, not so much with a bunch of questions or final answers but rich points of departure. In that way, I found it satisfying--again, not in the sense of finality or feeling sated but in the sense of deliciousness. Each panelist--Wendy Whelan, Petra Kuppers, Julie Atlas Muz (representing her husband and creative collaborator, Mat Fraser), Marissa Perel, Cathy Weis, and Westwater herself--offered a different history, pathway, insight and flavor. I consider them all guides who lead you to a good place and leave you there with confidence that you're smart enough to push on forward in your own way.

Westwater introduced the event by talking about how her engagement with somatic practices left her at variance with their emphasis on organizing the body. In her dance practice, she said, she was "pursuing a disorganized body, trying to understand what that was."

"Why am I trying to organize my body?" she asked. "I'm an artist. I want to express the body I have." Indeed, she turned to physical "disorganization" as a stimulus for a choreography of exaggerated dis-alignment that, she says, "never stops being interesting to me."

As the panel wrapped up, Westwater revisited this language and reworked it--referencing, instead, "different organizations of bodies."

As a dance writer, I found that revision at once enjoyable and useful. It made me remember a question someone recently posed to me: "What do you look for when you go to see a dance?" My response was perhaps different from what another writer might offer: I go to engage with what's there, whatever it might be, not to look for something predeterminied. In other words, if I expect anything, it's the possibility of something different, and I've signed up for engagement with it. While that's no guarantee that I will get it or like it, it's a protective against simply failing to respect its right to exist.

Westwater and Whelan, it turns out, are old friends from youth. Even so, Whelan's presence on this panel was surprising and proved refreshing. After all, her stellar career, though evolving, has been rooted in classical ballet technique, far from Movement Research's approach to dance. But here's the thing: At age 12, Whelan was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature and rotation of the spine) and spent months in a chin-to-hip body cast while bravely resuming her rigorous ballet training. Treatment helped, but it did not wipe away her innate sense of difference. At times, the ballerina had to endure fault-finding by members of my profession for the look of her body and her dancing.

Today, Whelan considers her condition a gateway to the truth of herself, beyond picture-perfect ballet conventions, and to the pursuit of more adventurous means of self-expression through the works of contemporary choreographers.

"I strive to be fearless," she says. "I'm never afraid to embarrass myself."

Kuppers--a German-born community performance artist and disability culture activist, now based in Michigan--impressed me with her playful approach to the world as a model of easygoing engagement based in perception and compassion. From Muz--performance and burlesque artist married to an actor with thalidomide-induced Phocomelia--I simply inhaled a renewed affirmation of my femme self and a voracious pleasure in the age-old, radical power of the Outsider. Perel spoke of disabilities and pain hidden from view--"I've been able to look like a dancer"--and, in particular, what dance critics fail to take into account when they encounter her work. A poet, installation artist, choreographer and critic, Perel says she works with forms of art that will give her agency. "I don't really care what they are." Weis, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in decades ago and facing the loss of her marriage, regained her own agency through turning not only to dance but to stained glass and, especially, to video as an extension of herself, made on equipment that she could handle by herself.

Body Disrupt offered notions of disruption that can instigate not only the work of movement artists but also the work those of us who view, process, document and critique their art. These artists encourage each of us to define and relish in our freedom.

Movement Research Studies Project presents a series of artist-instigated panel discussions, roundtables, performances and/or other formats that engage issues of aesthetics, philosophy and social politics relevant to the dance and performance community.

All Studies Project events are free and open to the public.


June 7, 6:30pm
Festival Spring 2016 Studies Project
Curated by Aretha Aoki, Elliott Jenetopulos, Eleanor Smith and Tara Aisha Willis

Gibney Dance Choreographic Center
890 Broadway, 5th Floor, Manhattan

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