If you think wheelchairs and dance don’t belong on the same stage, you haven’t seen Atlanta’s Full Radius Dance. Or any physically integrated dance company, for that matter.
Full Radius Dance comprises four able-bodied dancers and four dancers in wheelchairs; they will perform three new works January 18 and 19 at 7 Stages in Little Five Points.
Founded in 1995 by Douglas Scott, who is artistic and executive director, and Ardath Prendergast, Full Radius is one of more than 30 physically integrated dance companies in the United States. Among them is California’s AXIS Dance Company, which has appeared twice on Fox TV’s hit series “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Another well-established company is Dancing Wheels in Cleveland. Scott was inspired to start his company after attending a workshop led by that group’s founder, Mary Verdi-Fletcher. Full Radius has since thrived and now tours nationally and internationally.
All these companies challenge our conceptions about dance, often producing stunningly theatrical, kinetic work. But, says Scott, “a wonderful offshoot of what we’re doing is art for social change. We are making a political statement every time we take the stage.”
Art (and dance) for social change has had its detractors over the years, as have choreographers who push the limits of what is considered acceptable. In 1994, Arlene Croce, dance critic at The New Yorker, refused to review Bill T. Jones’ “Still/Here” because some of the performers were terminally ill and their condition was made evident in the piece. Illness and death were rampant in the dance community at the time because of the AIDS epidemic; Jones’ collaborator and life partner, Arnie Zane, had died of the disease six years earlier.
In her now infamous article “Discussing the Undiscussable,” Croce argued that Jones was trying to elicit empathy from critics and audiences, thus disallowing any clear-minded, objective assessment. She called it “victim art.” Whether or not you agree with that premise, Full Radius Dance is emphatically not offering victim art.
Only one of the 40-plus pieces in its repertoire addresses disability directly. Scott and the dozen or so choreographers who’ve worked with Full Radius approach the “standing” dancers and those in wheelchairs the same way: as unique artists with strengths and limitations.
The challenge for any contemporary choreographer is to create art that utilizes dancers’ talents and quirks while simultaneously transcending them to reveal a larger artistic vision. For physically integrated companies, this challenge is potentially greater. At their best, they present work that explores new and exciting approaches to movement, leading audiences to see and feel anew the world around us.
Atlanta can experience Full Radius Dance’s success in achieving these goals when it performs Scott’s “Touch” and “Dames and Delinquents,” and an as-yet-untitled premiere by Lori Teague, director of the Emory University dance program, at 7 Stages.
“Touch” was inspired by Scott’s retirement from performing. “I knew it was time to step away. My body was telling me; my spirit was telling me,” he explains one afternoon over tea in a Grant Park coffee shop. “I was comfortable with my decision, but couldn’t figure out why I was depressed after rehearsals. I came to the realization that I didn’t miss performing, I missed the physical contact with the dancers, the intimacy of rehearsing with a group.”
He created “Touch” in three sections. “Science of Touch,” set to a drum score, is very clinical and very sterile, according to Scott. “Emotion of Touch” introduces two duets, one passionate and one aggressive enough to require that the dancers wear shoulder pads. The third is “Memory of Touch,” set to music by Philip Glass.
“Dames and Delinquents” jumps back to the 1950s and comprises five dances set to early rock ‘n’ roll, each expressing a different kind of teenage rebellion. Scott was inspired by the cheap paperback novels that proliferated after World War II, with their “tawdry covers.”
Teague’s new work is her second for the company. The first, “On Land” (1998), took the dancers out of their chairs. “The piece was all done on the floor,” she recalls. Known for her collaborative process and her contact improvisation background, Teague this time gave the dancers the opportunity to experiment.
“I wanted to keep it in an improvisational structure,” she says. “It keeps the work more alive. Some days they would do the improv in the chair, other days they would do it out of the chair.”
One section is performed to the sounds of a racquetball game. “It gives a sense of readiness and awakeness, responding to something [with a quick] reaction time,” Teague says. Quick reaction time is particularly important with this group of dancers because those on wheels can move faster than those on feet.
Scott’s extensive community outreach program serves people with and without disabilities, including the visually impaired, hearing-impaired and those with brain injuries. In his professional company, however, he made a decision not to work with those types of disabilities. “It’s what works for me as a choreographer,” he explains. “We use the chair in two different ways. Sometimes it’s a prop; other times it is an extension of the dancer.”
Not all physically integrated dance companies take this approach. New York choreographer Heidi Latsky, formerly a principal with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, created her startling, 70-minute work “GIMP” for dancers with a variety of physical disabilities, including a woman with one arm and another, a double amputee, who performed a luscious Cirque de Soleil-style aerial dance. None of them was in a wheelchair. All of them have an in-your-face confidence that makes them interesting as artists.
Latsky, Scott, Teague and the dozens of choreographers working in the physically integrated dance world have highly individual styles, but like all dance makers, they know how to create art with bodies that move. Postmodern choreographer Ann Carlson once told Dance Magazine that they are “purveyors of a new world of radical physicality.”
As Scott explains it, “One of the misconceptions about Full Radius Dance is that it’s us and them: dancers without disabilities and dancers with disabilities. But we are all one. We are all dancers.”