Vision 2020: Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson

Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: "Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up."

“From a choreographer’s point of view,” Portland choreographer Yulia Arakelyan told ArtsWatch in 2015, “the more body diversity there is, the more opportunity for creativity and uniqueness.” Arakelyan and her artistic and life partner Erik Ferguson have spent the last decade and a half contributing their unique creativity to Portland’s dance and film scenes, in multifaceted, sometimes whimsical performances whose movement and imagery resemble nothing else in Oregon.

Erik Ferguson and Yulia Arakelyan, at work and play.

In 2006 the pair, both of whom use wheelchairs, created Wobbly, a Portland multidisciplinary performance company influenced by improvisational dance and Butoh. Their work focuses on “the unavoidable exploration of the body weathered by life,” according to its website. “Wobbly is a way of life, an expression of the belief that disability is a natural variation of the human form and in this variation there is art.”

Both serve on the board of directors of Water in the Desert, the sustainable arts organization that opened Portland’s Headwaters Theater and also created Prior Day Farm, an urban dance and permaculture farm in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood. They’ve collaborated often with Water in the Desert founder Mizu Desierto.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


Arakelyan and Ferguson were also among the original artists to create in studio spaces at what’s now called Studio NEW, southeast Portland’s former Zoomtopia arts space. They’ve created two feature films, Waking the Green Sound: a dance film for the trees (2015) and Tidal, which premiered in 2017, with an expanded version coming soon. Eager collaborators with a variety of Northwest artists, the duo last year choreographed the landmark original rock opera The Poet’s Shadow with intellectually and developmentally disabled artists from PHAME Academy.

Biggest impact on arts and culture in the disability community in the past few years?

Erik Ferguson: Trump. We all say that here in our arts bubble, but it’s really true for disabled people. There’s a sense of less safety than there used to be. Hate-based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up. And now we have to worry about cuts to Medicaid and how that will affect our lives and our art. Our entire home care system is based on Medicaid and the Medicaid expansion program. [Editor’s note: Medicaid expansion is part of the Affordable Care Act, under constant attack from President Trump and Republican lawmakers.] Those programs are always in jeopardy, and it’s worse now. We have this amazing team of eight people keeping us in our own home, where we’re able to do art, and when that falls away, we end up in a nursing home: socially isolated, shorter life expectancy. 

That weighs on us heavily all the time. They reassess us every year: ask you all these questions about the minutiae of your life to see if you still qualify. How many minutes does it take to go to the bathroom? Questions like that. Every year it’s incredibly anxiety provoking. 

With those kind of things, it’s gotten so much worse. There’s less sense of hope for change around those things. 

Yulia Arakelyan in a scene from Tidal. Photo: Kamala Kingsley

What keeps you making art despite the challenges? 

EF: We deeply have found an artistic community in Portland. I’ve been here since 1997, and we’ve finally managed to feel like we’re enveloped in this community. The process of making film, theater — the kind of work we make, you cannot do it in isolation. If I were a painter, I could do it in isolation. Whereas to make Tidal took five people 7-10 hours a day — hanging lights, makeup and three hours to do some of those costumes — and they did it because they love us. Being an artist is not about money or gallery shows — it’s about people and fostering those relationships. 

We’re deeply enmeshed in Water in the Desert, which is that kind of chosen family in Portland. We’re all completely wrapped up in art and theater.  We’re developing a life/art practice. How do we build relationships, how do we neighbor, how do we farm, care for animals, how does that relate to art? Mizu’s farm is right behind us. We share animals. Alpacas and goats pass between the two.

Studio NEW — that space was built for us. Carole [Zoom, the artist who created what was originally called Zoomtopia, where Wobbly had a residency] said, ‘”How do you want this to be accessible to you?” It’s one of the most accessible places for art and it’s the one we recommend first.

What are your goals and expectations for the coming year in the arts, professionally and personally?

Yulia Arakelyan: After we got done with The Poet’s Shadow in the fall, I got this idea to start a dance company at PHAME. We start teaching a dance class winter term. We’ll start with the class and see what the interest is and see how it goes, and build the company from that. We don’t really have a timeline or a first performance. After we’re doing the class for a while, we’ll have a much better idea of where to take it.

EF: We hadn’t done any work at PHAME before. After we worked with these groups, we didn’t want to say goodbye. Some people were there for fun. Others had professional aspirations. What happens to them after we go away? 

We want to do more work and consulting with PHAME. We looked at the rock opera project as a case study for how you build accessible connections with others and an accessible project. I like the collaborative aspect of working with multiple people. It can’t be one person, it can’t be two people — you must have diverse perspectives and artists who work with and live in those disability populations. The disability community is diverse, so you need as much representation as you can get. 

YA: We also plan to finish our second film, Tidal. We never quite finished it. We opened it and showed it, and now they’re doing new animations for it. We really want to get that in the can. 

Arakelyan and Ferguson in Diver, from the film Tidal. Photo: Kamala Kingsley

What issue or issues in your community would you most like outsiders to understand?

EF: That disability is a natural variation of the human form. Performance art is one of the best ways to express that. We can’t mold ourselves into the shapes of conventional dance. But somehow we get to use that unique instrument and form of expression. It’s almost like, “Ha ha we get to, not ‘we have to.’”

Last fall, we participated in Seattle’s Luminata festival around Green Lake. We were the King and Queen of Middle Time. The costumes were so elaborate that people didn’t realize we were human. People couldn’t figure out how we were moving. We’re not ashamed of our disability but we also love this idea of taking out the icon that is the wheelchair.

There’s so much to be said for community work like that. We have a strong craving for high production values, because then people stop seeing disability for what they think it is. When we do it, it becomes something otherworldly. Instead of a deficiency, it becomes something extra.

If you could make one thing happen in the 2020s, what would it be?

YA: I want to see all the dance studios now operating to be able to stay in their spaces. Everybody’s rent is going up. It’s a serious situation. I don’t want any to close down. 

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This is the sixth in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The Newport dance teacher’s “small” goals: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead.
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of Eastern Oregon’s Art Center East in La Grande say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.

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