Wheelchair Performers Widen The Sweep of Dance Moves

International festival focuses on cutting-edge art form

For a lot of people, the term "wheelchair dance" might seem a paradox. For the Boston-based presenting organization Dance Umbrella, it's simply the most apt terminology for a cutting-edge art form that is starting to involve hundreds of dance companies around the world.

In recognition and celebration of that fact, Dance Umbrella is presenting the first-ever International Festival of Wheelchair Dance, an unprecedented gathering of more than a dozen mixed-ability dance companies from around the world.

For nearly two weeks, companies have been offering dance classes, workshops, dance jams, and performances throughout the Boston area, opening eyes and hearts to the surprising beauty and power of an art form in which many of the dancers are in wheelchairs.

"Think of a great contemporary dance company that happens to have some members able to use the advantage of rolling movement," says Dance Umbrella's executive director Jeremy Alliger. "There's wonderful, surprising movement there that you couldn't experience in a traditional dance company."

The festival culminated in four nights of performances at the Boston Center for the Arts and a conference on Saturday that brought together the dancers, artistic directors, and local and international leaders in a series of panels, demonstrations, and audience interactions to explore the emerging issues of this new dance form.

The festival has cast into sharp focus many of the difficulties mixed-ability companies face, not the least of which is accessibility, since very few theaters are totally handicapped-accessible backstage. In addition, the audiences for mixed-ability companies undoubtedly draw greater numbers of handicapped audience members, yet few performing spaces can accommodate a large influx of wheelchairs. Dance Umbrella had to fashion its own space just for the occasion.

But Tuesday night's opening performance convinced a large enthusiastic audience that all the effort was well worthwhile. The mixed repertory program featured a fascinating sample of the art form with performances by nine different companies or soloists, and for the uninitiated, the program was undoubtedly a revelation. The art form encompasses a wide variety of aesthetics, movement styles, and contextual concerns, with pieces ranging from the overtly sentimental to the political to the purely abstract.

That there is a vast range of quality within the form is not surprising.

The best of the work had the power to move and provoke without playing on the sympathy factor. By and large, these companies want their work to be accepted as art, not novelty. But the weakest pieces offered nothing new other than the fact that some of the dancers were in wheelchairs.

The strongest work was by AXIS Dance Company, whose poetic, stunningly beautiful "Of Air" utilized two large loops of rope hanging from the ceiling. The ropes functioned as both a tether and a soaring means of liberation for wheelchair dancer Uli Schmitz as well as the expressive and eloquent Stephanie McGlynn.

DanceAbility's "Wheels of Fortune" was a playful, sometimes poignant encounter between two dancers, one disabled, the other non-disabled, which included all manner of wearing, carrying, hiding behind, being impaled on or imprisoned by wheelchairs (and ultimately each other). It evolved into a compelling testament to trust, support, and interdependence.

Light Motion's Charlene Curtiss and Joanne Petroff used a long-lined grace in their abstract works, playing with balance and the shifting of weight. They created provocative imagery through their imaginative partnering, taking turns supporting each other in intricate poses that often took advantage of the circular flow made possible by one partner being on wheels.

Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels and Infinity Dance Theater presented lyrical, overtly sentimental works. Both were well executed but on the sappy side and tended to trade choreographic invention for emotional uplift. The opposite extreme was two European companies, whose expressionist aesthetic gave a decidedly unsentimental cast to the form.

In Bilderwerfer's improvisation, the fact that two of the six dancers were in wheelchairs and one had Down's syndrome was incidental. It merely added depth and variety to their artistic palette. DIN A 13's "Body Distance Between the Minds," an intense confrontational duet, featured the female wheelchair dancer not as a weak victim but more in control than her non-disabled male partner, challenging our assumptions of power and capability.

Crutch dancer William Shannon's delightful improvisations throughout the night tied it all together. His jangly, isolated movement atop crutches, including a high-energy skateboard romp, showed athletic virtuosity, a keen imagination, and a wonderfully skewed sense of humor.

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