Lyrical dance pieces incorporating performers in wheelchairs, a one-man show promising “funny stories about cancer” and the Lookingglass Theatre’s world premiere adaptation of “Still Alice,” a New York Times best-selling novel about a college professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, are included in the rich pool of offerings in “Bodies of Work,” an 11-day festival of disability arts and culture that begins Friday.
The festival’s robust lineup features film screenings, poetry and book readings, contemporary art shows, workshops and panel discussions, all highlighting the work of professional artists with disabilities.
The Museum of Contemporary Art will host Back to Back Theatre, the acclaimed Australian company made up of actors with disabilities, May 16-19. The group will perform “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich,” an imaginative fable about an acting company’s struggles with a dictatorial director. On May 24 at Jane Addams Hull House Museum, Christine Sun Kim, a deaf Korean-American performance artist, will create an immersive installation that translates sound into visible forms. On the same night, Brian Lobel will perform his black comedy “BALL and Other Funny Stories About Cancer” at Victory Gardens Theater.
The idea behind the festival, says Bodies of Work director Carrie Sandahl, an associate professor in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who also heads the university’s Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities, is to “illuminate disability experience in new and unexpected ways.”
Sandahl says popular culture typically portrays characters who are disabled or ill “as an inspiration, or a villain, or a charity case,” and that the roles they play are “largely symbolic … to teach nondisabled people lessons about themselves.”
Instead of seeing disability as a flaw, advocates like Sandahl argue that we should instead consider it “part of natural human variation.” Through art, says Sandahl, an artist with a theater background who was born with sacral agenesis, a condition that requires her to walk with crutches or use a wheelchair, “we are expressing our perspectives on the world gained by having a unique body, a unique mind, sensory differences, mental health differences. We don’t see these as obstacles to overcome, but as experiences to be explored.”
She adds that people in the disability arts movement aren’t trying to be “separatist,” nor are the artists trying to blend into the mainstream: “It’s more about expanding the stories and the images (of disabled people) and … what people understand to be a disability experience.”
She hopes the festival provides disabled and nondisabled people with a chance to mingle comfortably.
“Usually nondisabled people are told not to stare. It creates almost a hypervisibility and an invisibility at the same time. What the festival does is say, ‘Hey, look at us — we have something to say that’s not what you think it is.’ ”
When it comes to inclusivity, says Sandahl, “dance is ahead” of the other arts, although she admits that may seem counter-intuitive.
“(If ) you use a wheelchair or you’re an amputee or you’re blind, typically, you would be excluded from traditional dance training,” she explains, because ballet and modern dance were created with “very specific kinds of nondisabled bodies” in mind. People with disabilities began to create and choreograph dances based on the unique ways in which their own bodies moved. Now, a number of dance companies across the country are “physically integrated,” meaningthey’re comprised of dancers with and without physical disabilities.
After dancer Ginger Lane incurred a spinal cord injury almost 30 years ago and could no longer walk, she assumed that meant she’d never dance again.
“When I acquired my disability,” Lane says, “I had to start rethinking dance, and whether I was still going to be a part of that world.”
Lane eventually met other dancers with disabilities who were using their wheelchairs and prosthetic devices to move in entirely new ways. It inspired her to relearn dance, this time by “making arcs and circles and sweeping movements, and spins, and trying to move on one wheel,” all by way of her chair.
She says she sees her wheelchair as a part of her body. “It’s not in addition to your body; it is your body. That’s why so many of us don’t like when people put their feet on our chair or lean on it.”
Lane will perform the self-choreographed “Prayer” and several other dances May 17 and 18 as part of a program called “Counter Balance” at Access Living, a not-for-profit organization that promotes and supports independent living for people with disabilities, where Lane works as an arts and culture coordinator. The program also features Lisa Bufano, a performer who uses stilts, puppets and props to transform her body and its movements into fantastic and otherworldly forms, as well as several pieces performed by Oak Park’s acclaimed physically integrated MOMENTA dance company.
The festival won’t only illuminate the disability experience from onstage. “We’re asking venues to embrace different ways of being a spectator as well,” Sandahl says. She and other festival organizers are helping staff at participating venues make their spaces more accommodating, physically and otherwise, so that, for example, audience members accompanied by service animals or who use ventilators that make audible hissing sounds aren’t relegated to the back rows.
“The experience (of being in an audience) is about being in community. It means you’re not sitting in your house, in front of the TV,” Sandahl explains. “When we’re at a live arts event, we need to be accepting of the various bodies that are there.”
The festival’s opening celebration is 6-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., and features a panel discussion on the disability arts movement with Chicago artist Riva Lehrer, Davidson College professor Ann Fox, and poet and disability scholar Sami Schalk, among others. Go to bodiesofworkchicago.org/festival.html for a complete schedule and information on disability accommodations at each venue and firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @chitribent
Performer Lisa Bufano uses stilts, puppets and props to transform her body and its movements.
Brian Lobel will perform “BALL and Other Funny Stories About Cancer” at Victory Gardens Theater.
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
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