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Dancers in wheelchairs? Karen Peterson mixed-ability troupe back on Miami stage

Members of Karen Peterson and Dancers and Portugal’s Plural|Núcleo de Dança and Amalgama Companhia de Danca in “Identity”
Members of Karen Peterson and Dancers and Portugal’s Plural|Núcleo de Dança and Amalgama Companhia de Danca in “Identity”

Contemporary dance has a way of showing us how harmoniously encompassing art can be. That’s what South Florida’s mixed-ability dance troupe Karen Peterson and Dancers (KPD), together with Portuguese counterparts Amalgama Companhia de Dança and Plural | Núcleo de Dança Contemporânea, set out to prove on Thursday and Friday with the U.S. premiere of the Miami/Lisbon Dance Exchange, a transatlantic creative collaboration of artists that explores bodies of all abilities in motion.

In early April, Peterson and her dancers traveled to Lisbon to work with Amalgama and Plural. The result was Identity, which debuted at Fórum Lisboa in Portugal, and will be the thematic centerpiece of the Miami/Lisbon Dance Exchange program that KPD brings to the Miami-Dade County Auditorium.

Identity was a tri-collaboration, which in itself is a little tricky, and I was a bit scared of the whole premise of that, but from the minute we arrived [in Lisbon], these groups were incredible,” says Peterson, who founded KPD in 1990. “They just opened up their arms.”

Rounding out the show are Gimp Gait, a duet by Miami choreographer Pioneer Winter, who will perform it with longtime KPD wheelchair dancer Marjorie Burnett; and Through a Void, Inside a Brick, a collaboration between KPD choreographers and dancers Katrina Weaver and Juan María Seller, with other company members. The Plural troupe will contribute the duet In This Place, at the Same Time, while Amalgama’s Sandra Battaglia will do Canto Primero, a fusion of Spanish and contemporary dance set to Portugal’s national music, fado.

Spanish-born KPD dancer Seller, who danced with Amalgama for almost two years, introduced Peterson to the Portuguese troupes. What began with email exchanges and each group’s own explorations of the agreed-upon theme of identity, coalesced into a body of work that shared similar interpretations of the concept.

“Even though we work in different countries, with different methods, we share the same purpose in our inclusive dance work,” Rafael Alvarez, artistic coordinator of Plural, says from Lisbon. The company, begun two decades ago, is part of the 60-year-old social foundation Fundação LIGA, and integrates professional and non-professional dancers with and without disabilities. “It is very similar to what Karen develops there in Miami,” Alvarez said.

“They practice what we practice here,” Peterson said. “Amalgama is contemporary dance, and Plural is mixed ability, but they had worked with each other, so they were familiar. The whole idea for all of us then was ‘Who are you as an artist?’ ‘How do you feel about being a Miami artist? A Lisbon artist?’ ‘What is it that we share?’ “

The answers to these questions would come through movement. As Peterson and her troupe have discovered every time they’ve gone abroad, dance is a unifying element. “We’ve been to nine countries so far,” Peterson said. She has taken her company to locations as diverse as Brazil and Scotland, and the Balkan countries of Montenegro and Serbia. “It always amazes me that, despite the politics and the language, the physical and age differences, there is something about movement, the passion of movement, that brings us together.”

Seller, who’s been with KPD for two years, agrees. When he choreographs a piece that includes mixed-ability dancers, he literally puts on their shoes, so to speak, by creating and moving in a wheelchair.

“Dance is dance. All bodies have their own limitations, but they can dance,” says Seller during a recent rehearsal at KPD’s studios in South Miami-Dade. “Everyone works according to what their physical possibilities allow. At that point where you find yourself and are comfortable with who you are, and with those around you, that’s when you’ve found your identity.”

His KPD colleague Katrina Weaver experienced this firsthand during the trip to Lisbon, when she and Seller previewed an excerpt of Through a Void , which features able-bodied and mixed-ability dancers.

“I’ve done about four exchanges with Karen over the years, so I’ve had the blessing to be a part of this in different regions and with different dancers, and I always think how amazing it is the common language we have in this art form,” Weaver says. “It really opens the door immediately to connection, with any group. Dance kind of equalizes everything.”

Shawn Buller, who dances in a wheelchair and has been with KPD for a decade, can attest to the power of dance as an equalizer.

“It’s always exciting to travel with Karen Peterson and Dancers,” says Buller, who is featured in Through a Void as well as Identity. “This is the third time I’ve been able to do that, but this was probably the first experience where we really worked together from beginning to end.”

“A bond happened quite naturally in Lisbon,” she adds. “There’s such a trust level with people that you just met a day ago, but now you have to move with them and create a piece with them. That is quite remarkable.” 

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.

If you go

What: Miami/Lisbon Dance Exchange with Amalgama, Plural and Karen Peterson and Dancers

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Where: Miami-Dade County Auditorium On.Stage Black Box, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami

Info: $20, $15 students/seniors/wheelchair users; karenpetersondancers.org or 305-298-5879, or in advance at ticketmaster.com

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