Wobbly Dance co-founders Erik Ferguson and Yulia Arakelyan spent years trying to create and perform dance. But until recently, their hometown of Portland offered few opportunities for wheelchair-using dancers like them.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in mainstream contemporary dance, especially contact dance,” says Ferguson, “and [we know that] if you’re serious about being a performer or artist, you need to be practicing many times a week. If we had waited around for the next disability event or workshop, we wouldn’t be where we are right now,” says. “In both the disability and dance worlds, we’re on the fringes. We have to make our own opportunities happen.”
Wobbly did just that by creating a space for dance that suited the needs and abilities of disabled artists. “I’m OK with being a little marginalized and doing my work,” Ferguson says. “There are tons of people more athletic than I am who are making inroads into the mainstream. That’s not us. We’re off to the side, and we embrace that.”
Now approaching the beginning of its second decade, the company has created a series of increasingly ambitious dance works, some with Portland choreographer Mizu Desierto, including 2010’s Dreaming/Waking, 2012’s Underneath, and last year’s You Too Are Made of Stars.
This month, Wobbly and its collaborators are demonstrating how accessibility helps spark artistic innovation. With guest artist Grant Miller, cinematographer Ian Lucero, plus original music by Sweetmeat and photography by Kamala Kingsley, the company’s Waking the Green Sound: a dance film for the trees for the first time incorporates film as well as dance into a Wobbly project. And it sent them into another kind of new space: outdoors.
“We had just finished a residency where we had done a performance that was very durational and strenuous,” Ferguson remembers. “It had really heavy costuming, and stretched the limits of breathing and certain aspects of our physicality. After that, Yulia was looking for a way to control the time duration, and for the freedom to go back and refine things without dangerous physical exertion.”
Arakelyan found the solution after participating in a long-distance collaborative project involving dancers in three different cities. “As part of our process, the three of us kept a daily dance diary for one month. Each day, I filmed, edited and posted a dance video to our YouTube channel. I was using a really old camera … on a really old and slow computer, but I loved it,” she recalls.
Using film allowed Wobbly to direct the audience’s attention to the wheelchair-using performers’ smaller, subtler movements that might otherwise be missed by viewers seated at the typical distance in most venues. It also helped Wobbly escape the boundaries of the theater itself — an important factor, given the subject matter they wanted to explore.
“We’ve been working for 10 years with the aesthetic of [the postwar Japanese dance form] butoh, which is suffused with natural imagery, full of the essence of big natural forces, storms and toxic things and large animals — things that create extreme sensations,” explains Ferguson, who’s recently been reading the work of disability scholars on the way different bodies and mobility devices can limit access to nature. “For a long time, we’ve been bringing nature indoors, so we finally went outside to work with nature! We can shoot on location outside, and include the grass, the trees, the elements.”
With fellow disabled performer Grant Miller, they’ve created what Ferguson calls “a lot of lush, still-life natural imagery. I come up with all these images, but can’t tell where it’s going to go,” he says. That’s where Arakelyan’s traditional dance training takes over. “Erik and I work so differently; I start with music, or explorations of the body moving, where Erik approaches it from imagery,” she says. “We complement each other.”
Another collaborator, Portland filmmaker Ian Lucero, helped them flesh out shots and scenes. “We went to him with all this imagery, and he never once lost patience and said ‘How do you expect me to put this to film?’” Ferguson laughs. “We spent basically a week of shooting six hours a day.”
The film eschews a traditional narrative in favor of three scenes, including a mad tea party, wild bodies, and a ritual shrine scene involving frankincense and dry ice. But the primary subjects throughout are the dancers.
“From a choreographer’s point of view,” Arakelyan notes, “the more body diversity there is, the more opportunity for creativity and uniqueness.” Ferguson also views the new project as a way to transform challenges and differences into artistic opportunity. “I love disabled people,” he says. “The diversity of the disabled form never ceases to excite me. This film gave us the opportunity to create a unique environment where other people can see the unearthly beauty of disabled bodies, a world where people can share my fascination with this diversity.”
Waking the Green Sound: a dance film for the trees premieres May 22-24 at Portland’s Headwaters Theatre. Tickets are $10-15 through Box Office Tickets. An earlier version of this story appeared in Artslandia.
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