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DANCE IN THE BODY YOU HAVE
by Barney Yates
Alice Sheppard (on the left) and Kitty Lunn (right). Photo by Sofia Negron.
The Women's Stories Project
Performed by Infinity Dance Theater
Presented by Theater for the New City, December 7 and 8, 2013 (closed)
There are a lot of life's lessons you can learn from mixed-ability companies, where wheelchairs and crutches are danced with as partners, props, or conceptual objects d'art. Kitty Lunn and her Infinity Dance Theater have been showing us a lot of them since 1995. There is no longer any aesthetic quarreling about whether dancing in a chair is dancing, thank God. According to recent articles, there are over 30 companies now working in which differently-abled dancers are now working. The best-known of them include Dancing Wheels, Joint Forces, Spitzer Dance Company, Axis, and of course, Infinity, which may have been the progenitor of them all.
As part of its one-weekend season presented by Theater for the New City December 6-8, InfinityDance Theater performed a repertory program with one new piece, "Unbound: Dancing from Here to There," and an afternoon program of dance theater, "The Women's Stories Project." I attended the latter in its Saturday matinee.
"The Women's Stories Project" was a series of four narrated dances in which four women offered differing accounts of life's setbacks and how they responded with a creative impulse, through dance. The experience was bracing and ratifying to everyone in the audience, who included normal theatergoers, artists of various stripes and a handful of disabled people.
Kitty Lunn, wearing a pink dress, introduced her story with autobiographical stories about formative events of her childhood and youth that shaped her conviction that she was a dancer, and of the setback that almost ended her dance career. She was an accomplished contemporary dancer and preparing for her Broadway debut when she slipped on ice at her "day job," tumbled down the stairs and suffered a spinal injury that landed her in a wheelchair for life. Her monologue explained how she re-envsioned herself as a dancer who could "dance in the body I have" rather than give up this essential part of herself.
She touched on people who were formative to her process in shaping her identity as a dancer. They including a black maid in her parents' house who taught her "Folks gotta know their place and go out and take their place," Agnes De Mille, Mother Theresa (no kidding!), her husband Andrew, and a physical therapist who gave her a deadline to start dancing after her 1987 spill on the ice that left her wheelchair-bound.
Ms. Lunn performed "In Time Like Air," choreographed by Peter Pucci, in which she dreams herself in a snowstorm, imagines herself cold and gracefully catches snowflakes. The piece had me musing about whether the wheelchair, which she manipulates most expertly, is a partner or a prop.
Lynn Barr performed a piece, narrated by Lunn, about a dis-ease that "pulled the rug out from her life." The dis-ease, we learn, is grief at the loss of a husband. The raven-haired dancer, clad in black, showed us a picture of the black hole of grief. I have learned how to take the lesson she embodied in the dance. It is not meant to be saddening, but instructive. Our grief is not unavailing if we learn how to counsel and comfort those who, like ourselves are sorrowful. Ms. Barr's advice is to dance your grief. There is great integrity in that and it is good advice. Choreography was by Lunn and Ms. Barr.
Lucy Rosado dealt with her mother's breast cancer. After her mother's death, she had a dream that her mother sprinkled her with rose petals. She came down with the same cancer as her mother. Already epileptic, she had a seizure right there at the diagnosis. She endured chemo and radiation after surgery. Lucy was strong because of living with epilepsy; this helped give her the strength to fight for herself. Already an artist, she responded by intensely embracing her Puerto Rican heritage and taking up Puerto Rican Bomba dancing and Belly Dancing, which she illustrated for us. She asked, "Is it the body that carries the soul or the soul that carries the body?" She danced the dance of life, and will continue to do so, as long as God allows. Choreography was by Ms. Lunn.
Alice Sheppard closed the program in a piece choreographed by Kitty Lunn. A lithe woman with a dancer's body, Sheppard was a professor of Medieval Literature whose legs gave out due to a spinal disease. Subsequently, to add insult to injury, she was hit by a pickup truck. Interestingly, her academic community was strong for her, as was the community of strong disabled women she also fell into. She was dared to dance and once she did, it took hold of her. She resigned her academic position to become a dancer. Now she dances to honor the power and beauty of the human body.
The program closed with a foursome of Lunn, Barr, Rosado and Sheppard.
As much as it is a comment on dance, this show was a comment on fate. Its message is (in Lunn's words), life is messy but we are still here, doing life one day at a time. The Buddhists say that pain in life is inevitable but suffering is optional. Kitty Lunn advises us, until you are dead, lots of the systems of your body are working together perfectly, so you might as well dance with them. 'Dance in the body you've got,' Agnes De Mille told Ms. Lunn when she was in her early teens and worried that, at 5' 4", she would not make it as a prima ballerina.
The front row was a line of people in wheelchairs and one man was hooked to a breathing apparatus. I could not hear him cheer but I'll bet he did.
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