DanceAbility: moving in and out of the box

In Eugene, the university and a groundbreaking dance troupe think about barriers and creativity

Dance is movement through space. But it’s also space in movement. And on Friday afternoon in the Ragozzino Performance Hall of Lane Community College south of Eugene, the space moved for us.

In fact, the fir was flyin’. It was the premiere performance of “Don’t Leave Me,” the newest work from DanceAbility, and the eight dancers in the company were caught in, on, and around 15 cubes made of fir, each cube 2 x 2 x 2 feet with five sides open and the sixth solid.

The dancers stacked ’em up, made a living area and a wall out of ’em, tipped ’em on edge and spun ’em like tops, slithered in and around ’em and sometimes stuffed themselves inside, two to a box, alternately struggling against each other and helping each other balance or straighten up. For a break they sometimes lurked around the corners of a welded-steel 6 x 6 x 6 cube, which seemed gigantic by comparison. This went on, in a variety of variations and combinations, for about 80 minutes without intermission, and it didn’t seem a minute too long.

All squeezed in and someplace to go. Photo: DanceAbility

All squeezed in and someplace to go. Photo: DanceAbility

I drove to Eugene partly because I’ve known about DanceAbility International and its leader, Alito Alessi, for several years, but I’d never actually seen the work. Alessi founded DanceAbility, an approach to dance and disability, in 1989, and although he’s based in Eugene he travels around the world, giving workshops, choreographing, and making connections. In a way, his methodology is simply to approach the world as it is, and to find the beauty in that. “The real thing happens,” he says, “when you work with everybody.” One of his regular performers, though he’s not in “Don’t Leave Me,” is Emery Blackwell, who has cerebral palsy. Others might be in wheelchairs, or on crutches, or have missing limbs, or paralysis, or mental or emotional differences. And many (in the case of “Don’t Leave Me,” most) are “ordinary”: fully functional physically, and trained in the traditions of dance. You find what’s possible with a group of performers, Alessi says, and you work from that: “What I’m looking for in my dancers is not only how they can move, but who they are.”

The work can be transformative, as Bjo Ashwill, who has participated in DanceAbility, eloquently confirms in a quote from the company’s brochure: “We came with our sneakers, our canes, our wheelchairs, our two left feet, our bodies we see as too short, too fat, too skinny, too something – and we danced. By God, every sub-atomic particle of us danced in ways we could not have believed.” And although Alessi is a leader in the mixed-abilities dance world, he isn’t operating in a vacuum. In Portland, for instance, Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson’s butoh-influenced Wobbly Dance has done some fascinating work (and Ferguson, in fact, has studied with Alessi).

Alito Alessi in "Don't Leave Me" cubes. Photo: Michael Kevin Daly

Alito Alessi in “Don’t Leave Me” cubes. Photo: Michael Kevin Daly

What DanceAbility isn’t is the sort of earnestly inspirational “aw, look at the guy in the wheelchair dancing” thing that comes across as demeaning in spite of its intentions. And the surprising thing about “Don’t Leave Me” is that it doesn’t seem to be about limitations at all – or at least, not what we think of as “disability” limitations. You can watch it and, other than noticing at some point that dancer Karen Daly has only one leg, not be aware that it has anything to do with mixed physical abilities. In the one brief scene that includes a wheelchair, Daly is wheeled in rickshaw-style by another dancer, and the movement’s quite beautiful. “Don’t Leave Me” is a very good piece that touches on such essential modern issues as speed and slowness, constraint and release, closeness and distance, cooperation and conflict, and the nature of time. As Alessi says, “Time is a relative thing to the person you’re with.” In other words, what’s a slow movement to one person might be a fast one to another, and if they’re going to relate to each other, adjustments need to be made. He calls this group of dancers “a Eugene dream team” – the others are Jim Ballard, Sarah Ebert (who’s also danced in Portland with Linda K. Johnson, Minh Tran, and Mary Oslund), Laura Hiszczynski, Shannon Mockli, Sara M. Nemecek, Bonnie Simoa, and Alessi – and they work very well together, experimenting with the relationship between movement and space.

The act of dancing displaces and rearranges the dancers’ surroundings. Sometimes it’s simply by shifting the molecules in the air, creating a pushback tension. Sometimes it’s by fully engaging with a set or props, which then also become part of the motion. And that’s where Frances Bronet, creator of those stackable cubes, comes in. Bronet is dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts (or “Triple-A,” as it’s called on campus), and she’s fascinated by the provisionality and workability of space. She likes to work with choreographers, because they deal in liquid form with issues that architects need to confront in concrete form. “Architecture is always in movement,” she says. “You think about doors and windows. Think about settling.” Some things, like openings, help people move quickly. Some things, like settling, take their time. All of them have an effect on how people use space, and how space uses them. How does it create barriers? How does it create flow? Bronet asks: “Can you design space that allows for multiple ways of using it?”

Frances Bronet on the U of O campus. Photo: Ricci Cande

Frances Bronet on the U of O campus. Photo: Ricci Cande

Thinking about such matters with Alessi helped her come up with the cubes that both inhibit and unleash the dancers’ movements. They’re extremely simple, and as usual with simple things, arriving at them was a complex process. It involved honing, and considering safety and practicality, and thinking about the efficiency of space. How compact could it be and still provide room for two people? (A 2 x 2 x 2 cube, Bronet says, “has a lot of room in it.”) How stable did it have to be? How adaptable? The dancers got involved, too. Bronet likes to think of the levels of the cubes, which can be stacked like Ikea storage units, as “stories,” as in the stories of a building, and at one point they were being stacked four stories high, which proved too wobbly. In rehearsal one of the dancers, Simoa, ended up alone on the top story, with no one to support her, and her plea – “Don’t leave me!” – became the title of the dance. Alessi remarks that the cubes “speak” to the dancers as they’re performing: they can feel the vibrations from end to end as they grasp the wood. And Bronet points out that the cubes’ strength isn’t intrinsic: the dancers use their own strength to hold them together.

The program credits Bronet not with set design but with “space direction,” and considering her architectural base, it seems apt. In a way, the dance is about the approachability and malleability of structures: “How do we all occupy space? And how do we co-occupy it?” From the outside, the cubes can be seen in a lot of ways. They’re like exoskeletons, providing structure from the outside in. They’re shelters and they’re traps. They’re like braces and walkers, aiding movement when it’s otherwise difficult or impossible. They’re like bars on a cell. They’re mazes and impediments and opportunities. They’re provisional: dancer Ebert describes the process as “either keeping your partner from coming out or helping your partner come out.” And they’re frames. Daly, the dancer with one leg, spends most of her time in the bottom-story cubes, moving in her own muscular and particular way, which Bronet finds “particularly beautiful” in the way it adjusts to the realities of the cubes: “Her face is perfectly framed in the middle of the box.”

Bronet approaches the collaboration from a spacial perspective, and Alessi from what he calls the mythology, the conscious and subconscious and dark sides of the stories he makes up: “Simple as that. Little stories. Two men onstage. Alone. Two women. Those things matter to me.” But Bronet believes that philosophically they’re very close. Both are seeking a kind of freedom, an openness, a striking down of barriers.

I thought about that earlier as I was walking around the U of O campus with Karen Johnson, assistant dean of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. She talked about the issue of deciding whether you want an architecturally unified campus or one with variety, and pointed out several older buildings that looked historical from the outside but had been basically gutted and redesigned inside the exterior walls so they function better for contemporary needs. Portland developers and preservationists are familiar with the process, on projects ranging from the retrofitting of the EcoTrust Building to the rehabbing of the University of Oregon’s own Old Town building that houses the Portland branch of the Triple-A School and the White Box Gallery.

And I thought of it again after I’d parked at the Lane CC campus and was walking toward the theater for the performance. Johnson and I hooked up with a young woman in a wheelchair who was also heading to the theater, and of course, sitting in her chair, she saw the world from a lower angle, as Daly later would see it peering out from that floor-level cube. She also traveled a great distance out of her way to follow the ramp access through the campus – I’m guessing we covered about three times the territory we would have if we’d walked straight across using stairs – and that prepared me for one of the points of the dance: How do we arrange space to encourage the freest, most practical, and most encompassing movement through it? And why must those for whom travel is the most difficult travel the farthest? In such matters, dance, DanceAbility, and architecture seem like ideal exploratory partners. Dance poses questions of extreme importance to architects. Architecture does the same for dance. And DanceAbility is at the fulcrum, pointing out what often gets forgotten and reminding both sides of what’s at stake. Plus, of course, making good dance.

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Northern Spotted Owl, Clifornia, 2009; Michael Nichols, from National Geographic's "Greatest Photographs of the American West."

Northern Spotted Owl, California, 2009; Michael Nichols, from National Geographic’s “Greatest Photographs of the American West.”

My trip to Eugene was also prompted at least in part by my concern for the state of education, both higher and lower, and in particular my fear that the growing compulsion to test and rank and insist on measuring the unmeasurable is robbing our students of their right to a broad-reaching education, and our society of the benefits of a well-rounded and critically astute public. I’ve had a growing sense that failure, which is such a necessary part of learning, has become a non-option, and that our fear of economic slowdown has prompted a push to turn our colleges and universities into expensive trade schools rather than the exploratory places they ought to be. The morning before I drove south, the New York Times ran a front-page story by Tamar Lewin that seemed to confirm my fears: humanities programs at universities across the country have fallen on hard times, with fewer and fewer students enrolled, and many programs and professors being dropped.

So it was especially good to see the eagerness of teachers and schools at the U of O to cross disciplines and look for creative possibilities between or beyond the lines. Despite the trend, key people are bucking it. Bronet’s work with DanceAbility is one example – in fact, she leads a cross-disciplinary team at the university called Design in Movement. “Don’t Leave Me” also featured a score by U of O music prof Jeffrey Stolet, who composed 41 minutes of music which Alessi then cut apart and rearranged as he developed the movement, adding long passages of silence as well.

I also had lunch with a few of the university’s studio-art teachers, all of whom had interesting projects in the works, and did a whirlwind tour of the university’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art with its executive director, Jill Hartz, and communications manager, Debbie Williamson-Smith. Like a lot of museums on college and university campuses, the Schnitzer is the de facto art museum for its city and surrounding region, and it was good to see programming that actively reached out to the non-university audience as well as to students, faculty, and staff. The main floor was busy with some Day of the Dead installations: Hartz noted that nearby Springfield schools were closed on many Fridays for financial reasons, and the museum had a lot of kids visiting on those days. The galleries have been rethought and rehung recently, partly to make space for a bequest of European works (an area that had been a weakness); and the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese collections were looking good. Cuban art is a deep interest of Hartz’s, and one gallery held a fascinating series of photographs from the revolution, of Che Guevara and Fidel and others, by Alberto Korda, whose portrait of Che gazing into the distance is iconic. The main special-exhibition gallery is hosting the National Geographic’s touring show “Greatest Photographs of the American West,” which is a fine draw for the community at large, and which goes beyond picture-postcard images to think about the changing attitudes toward the land; it ends on December 31 and will be replaced in late January by “Emancipating the Past,” a selection from museum namesake Schnitzer’s collection of Kara Walker’s prints about slavery and power.

These are roles that a good university ought to be playing. Most of them can’t be measured. All of them are important. Of course, they need good space, an open design, and a willingness to think outside the 2 x 2 x 2 box to succeed.

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