Dance and Flower: dNaga’s peace about life: Dancing with Parkinson’s

By Claudia Bauer


We dancers demand an impossibly high degree of control—over our muscles, our bones, our emotions. We strive to defy powers greater than ourselves (gravity, for starters) and to outwit random misfortunes like illness and injury that can delay achievement or derail a career.

Yet even at our best, all we really do is occupy a point on the continuum of human ability, and a fleeting one at that. At another point on the continuum, nearer than we may realize, are dancers with Parkinson’s disease.

A progressive and incurable motor disorder, Parkinson’s causes tremors, stiffness, difficulty walking and talking, and impaired balance and coordination—ever-diminishing control over one’s body. It is the dancer’s greatest fear come to life.

Surely, people with Parkinson’s can’t be dancers…or can they? Choreographer Claudine Naganuma knows that they can. And while creating peace about life: Dancing with Parkinson’s, which premieres this month in Oakland, California, she discovered that dancers with Parkinson’s and dancers without Parkinson’s have much to learn from each other.

Peace about life presents twelve members of Naganuma’s company, dNaga, and eight dancers with Parkinson’s in a cast that ranges in age from 9 to 78. In nine ensemble and pas des deux sections, they dance fluidly to a lyrical soundtrack by Slow Six that’s layered with voiceovers by the Parkinson’s dancers. As they move among the effortless younger dancers, the Parkinson’s dancers reveal differing abilities at bending and turning, walking and extending, and their monologues grant glimpses of what Parkinson’s has meant to them.

Herb describes his fear of becoming dependent on others. “Will I want to live if that’s all my life is?” Each Parkinson’s dancer grapples with that question somehow, and dancing is one of the ways they answer it.

Jenifer’s voice infuses her duet with urgency: “You always felt you had all the time in the world.” With Parkinson’s, “you make time for things you never thought you’d have time for. You start saying yes to everything. You appreciate, appreciate, appreciate everything you can do now.”

“I have a newly acquired freedom,” says Scott, a painter whose unsteady hands have forever changed his work. “Letting go of previous expectations and ways of being, letting the self resolve and reform and resolve and reform, and being where you are now—that’s the ultimate freedom, because you don’t have to be anything.”

The dNaga dancers are as old as 31, but most are under 14. They move with a maturity beyond their years; working literally hand in hand with Parkinson’s dancers has been a growth experience for them, and it shows. “In the beginning, most of them didn’t know what Parkinson’s was,” Naganuma said. “I think that it made them ask questions in their own families about what it is, and dealing with aging. The most dramatic thing is that they don’t complain about their bodies as much. It’s created perspective.”

Many of the kids have danced with Naganuma for half their lives. Knowing them so well, she asks more of them than many choreographers would. “There’s a certain way that children are traditionally used, and I feel like I don’t do that at all,” she said. “I’m not trying to get them to smile and ‘do numbers.’ These young people are training and coming to class—they’re real dancers.”

She entrusts them with strategic roles in the performance, which combines choreography and improvisation. “Starting and stopping is a really huge problem if you have Parkinson’s. I realized that if [the Parkinson’s dancers] were completely stuck, if they forgot what they were doing, a child dancer would be able to cue them. The younger dancer’s responsibility is to remember where they are in the dance. But the Parkinson’s dancer has a choice—he or she decides on a whim if they’re going to stop or go,” adding a spontaneous element that’s unique to each performance.

The deliberately dependent roles create a tender interplay between the generations. “As an older adult, you don’t want to be told what to do constantly,” Naganuma observed. “But there’s a certain kind of magic when the kid is nine and says, ‘Let’s go over here!’ And the interesting thing that happens for the child is that you’re putting a kid in a place of empowerment. So there are these two things that are happening simultaneously that creates this new magic.”

Naganuma calls on all of the dancers to do double-improv in the ensemble section called “The Most Important Thing in Life.” While improvising kinesthetic movement, they repeat “the most important thing in life is…,” completing the sentence off the tops of their heads to make a different statement each time. Naganuma laughed as she recalled that “when we first started, the most important thing in life was ‘to do good in school,’ ‘to brush your teeth.’ The older guys would come in and say, ‘Floss your teeth; that’s the most important thing!’” As the dancers became comfortable with each other, they started speaking from their hearts; now, the most important things are awareness, to listen, to smile, to know who you are, to dance.

Peace about life evolved from Dance for PD classes that Naganuma leads at Danspace in Oakland, California, where she is also the managing director. A collaboration between Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation, Dance for PD uses guided movement from modern, tap, jazz, social dance and ballet to enhance flexibility, strength and balance, and have fun. “I went and did the training in New York, then David [Leventhal] and came here, and he and I taught a couple of classes together, and then he was like, OK, you’re off and running!”

Naganuma found herself spearheading the West Coast flagship of Dance for PD at Danspace, and is collaborating with Berkeley Ballet Theater to offer weekly classes; San Francisco classes are the next goal. A few of the dancers, inspired by the classes Leventhal led with fellow Morris company member John Heginbotham, started a group called PD Active, which gathers for yoga, theater, dance and poetry activities.

Naganuma never suspected that the project she began as a community service would grow so much, or that she would grow along with it as a person and an artist. “For a really long time I would have an idea or a piece of music that I would really like, and it was really all about me. In some way, I was able to step out of myself, out of my ego, out of my whole way of starting a work. The work is more powerful than it normally would have been, because it’s not about me. I wanted to provide a space for these people to tell their story, and it opened up a whole other spectrum of purpose.”

Ultimately, what makes peace about life so moving is not that the dancers have Parkinson’s. It’s that they are, in Henry Beston’s words, “caught with ourselves in the net of life and time”: They are hopefully, imperfectly, enjoyably and determinedly human, making their way along the continuum. As Scott says, “I always thought I had to be something. Now I realize, therein lies the problem. I’m not the artist or the gay man; I’m just earth and wood, flower and dance.”

peace about life: Dancing with Parkinson’s
Presented by dNaga in association with the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, Danspace, PD Active and Dance for PD
Fri-Sat, May 7-8, 8pm
Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland

This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of In Dance.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and