Under The Radar; Discovering our Sameness

By Jess Curtis


Special Feature: dance & disability
The following articles examine questions of virtuosity and difference explored in Jess Curtis/Gravity’s Under the Radar, a full-evening work dealing with issues of ability and disability with an international cast of disabled and non-disabled performers. Events around the performance include a film series and panel discussion including CounterPULSE, AXIS Dance Company, the Arts and Disability Network, and the CSUEB Dance for All Bodies and Abilities Program. For event times and details, visit jesscurtisgravity.org or counterpulse.org.

How can our contact with another body or object change the range of our movement potential? Can two people’s limitations or “dis-abilities” combine to become virtuosic? When do our skills become liabilities? Which is more beautiful, our fragility or our strength?

These questions were some of the beginning points for Under the Radar, an international collaborative performance project by my company, Gravity, which features a cast of professional performers with and without physical disabilities.

Several years ago, I was invited by Rachel Freeman, the director of Blue Eyed Soul Dance Company in Shrewsbury, England, to come and teach a workshop in aerial dance for her physically inclusive dance company. Rachel had seen some of the aerial work that I had been part of in Company Cahin- Caha’s production, raWdoG, and wondered if our work with ropes and harnesses could be taught to people with mobility impairments. This experience led to my facilitating a number of events involving the use of Contact Improvisation and Aerial Dance as teaching tools for persons with disabilities ranging from severe mobility impairments such as Cerebral Palsy, and Traumatic Spinal cord injury to Blindness, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and severe Osteoporosis. After being invited to Great Britain by Blue Eyed Soul, I and members of Gravity were invited to Paris, France by the Isle de Danse Festival and Theatre de Cachan to teach both Aerial Dance and Contact Improvisation to disabled students and professionals. Through these experiences we have had the opportunity to develop physical and pedagogical models that are both inclusive for those with mobility impairments and expressive of the unique movement potential of each individual. I also found that the use of performance based techniques such as contact improvisation and aerial equipment and techniques (harnesses, fabric loops, ropes, trapeze etc.) allowed for persons with a wide variety of physicalities to alter and extend their range of mobility.

I certainly don’t mean to give the impression that we discovered this work. The use of Contact Improvisation and dance-based practices in physically inclusive settings has been pioneered by a wide range of artists and teachers, notably Alito Alessi, Emery Blackwell and Karen Nelson of Joint Forces Dance in Eugene Oregon, and their Dance-ability work, AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, Blue Eyed Soul, and CanDoCo in Britain to name just a few. Our work has been very much reliant on the previous work of these people and others.

While doing this teaching I met Kaz Langley, a professional performer from London who happens to have Cerebral Palsy. I was immediately taken by Kaz’s performance presence and the unique qualities of motion that occur as she moves. I also found that working with bodies that are visibly other than our standard idea of normal started to reframe my entire sense of what is beautiful. Peeling back my expectations of normalcy I was able to appreciate an even broader diversity of possible expression of the human body.

It occurred to me that the outcomes of these teaching experiences were extremely interesting elements for the making of theatrical work; that the expansion of physical possibilities through contact and aerial equipment was in fact the essence of spectacle or circus and that the uniqueness of the physicalities and special skills of many of the people I was meeting was actually one of the theoretical elements defining virtuosity (albeit not in the traditional way.) I wondered what might happen if we underlined this commonality and paired talented artists with disabilities with other artists who had more traditionally recognized virtuosic abilities and examined the issue of ability, dis-ability beauty and virtuosity in general.

In choosing collaborators I assembled a varied group of individuals with a wide variety of talents, skills and tendencies. Of particular interest to me was this re-framing of the concept of virtuosity. I am interested to find the virtuosic edge, if you will, of each performer’s capabilities. For one performer this may entail standing on her hands for two minutes in a variety of physical shapes, for another it may be the carefully calibrated unison timing with a partner who is falling, for another it is the finely tuned movement of her weight through a graceful arc in the air over her crutches, all informed by years of daily training. In each situation we observe the performer working with an incredible focus to integrate the physical forces at play into a distinct act of beauty or strength. For another performer this act may be that of simply standing by herself and walking a circle on the stage without assistance. For her this action requires as much or more “talent” or “skill” as another performer’s back flip. And it entails at least as much risk. The skill with which Kaz Langley is able to integrate the intense variety of random physical impulses provided by her body is a virtuosic act of improvisational presence and physical talent. Claire Cunningham, another of my collaborators from Glasgow, Scotland, walks (and dances) on crutches (and up walls), and has created a very expressive movement vocabulary with them.

Kaz’s and Claire’s skill and clarity as performers help to deconstruct this concept of virtuosity for the viewer, allowing them to see beyond the first layer of tricks and gimmicks and into the true virtuosity of presence, focus, and discipline that underlie the true art of living in a body.

Beginning to teach in a physically inclusive setting has taught me many things. Very quickly one comes up against the inherent prejudice and assumption in much of our language around disability. The attempt to change how we use language is often ridiculed as “political correctness” but words are inherently wrapped up in how we conceive of things. Changing our language is one of the most tangible and simple step we can take toward changing our minds. For instance, the distinction between referring to someone as having a disability versus being a disabled person is a big one. Disability is usually not the central element of a person’s identity and most people with disabilities would rather not have themselves branded indelibly with that big letter D. In fact more recent language in the new-ish field of Disability Studies makes the distinction between one’s physical impairment, (i.e. the physical or medical condition itself) and the contextual nature of disability. As my colleague Kaz explained to me, “my CP (Cerebral Palsy) is my impairment, and perhaps by extension my difficulty in walking. My disability is created by a society which builds houses with stairs in them. I would never build a house with stairs for myself. I am dis-abled by the stairs and the cultural practice of building a structure which does not account for my physicality.”

In Under the Radar we play with reversing this relationship. Because of Kaz’s unique physicality there are a variety of things that she can do with her body, which many of us cannot do (for example she has amazing quickness due to the tonus of her muscles and extreme flexibility in her legs in several directions.) In one section of the new work, Kaz leads us through a dance based in her body’s abilities. As she becomes the standard by which we measure our ability, the rest of us are dis-abled to varying degrees.

Another important piece for me was just the act of differentiation, taking the time to see people as individuals and acknowledge the inherent uniqueness of each person’s situation and by extension respond to them as individuals. I’ve found that the more specific I am in dealing with anyone’s disability the more effective and useful my responses become (surprise, surprise, this is a pretty effective strategy in life in general.) For example a big one in this work is distinguishing between people with physical impairments and cognitive impairments. While there are some issues that cross over, people with physical impairments don’t appreciate being treated as though they have difficulty understanding you. Further than this pretty-obvious distinction, distinguishing between mobility impairment, visual impairment and hearing impairment has very functional ramifications. And further still, the differences between kinds of mobility impairments are extremely relevant in teaching about movement, people with spinal cord injuries have very different realities than people with CP, or people who are missing limbs.

In spite of its somewhat intellectual beginnings, our new piece, Under the Radar, is turning out not to feel so much like an intellectual analysis of physical diversity and virtuosity, but more like a little underground cabaret. It’s quite entertaining. There is a lot of humor and play and the individual personalities of each performer come through to expose a kind of rogues’ gallery of diverse characters. I was happy however, when a colleague who has a PhD in Dance Theory, after seeing our recent presentation of the work in Berlin, asked if we were consciously playing on the fact that the cabaret, or Variété as the French, and sometimes the Germans, call it has historically been the performing art form within which persons with disabilities, or people whose bodies varied widely from the norm, were able to find work as performing artists. I replied that we hadn’t really intended that, but I was happy that she had pointed it out. I guess that is the point of the work we have been doing after all. Vive la Variété.

This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of In Dance.

Jess Curtis is an award-winning choreographer and performer committed to an art-making practice informed by experimentation, innovation, critical discourse and social relevance at the intersections of fine art and popular culture. In 2000, Curtis founded his own trans-continental performance company, Jess Curtis/Gravity, based in Berlin and San Francisco. Curtis is active as a writer, advocate and community organizer in the fields of contemporary dance and performance, and teaches accessible Dance, Contact Improvisation and Interdisciplinary Performance courses throughout the US and Europe. He holds an MFA in Choreography and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California at Davis. jesscurtisgravity.org