For the past 25 years, Karen Peterson and Dancers have made mixed-ability dance relevant to the South Florida cultural community. Combining dancers who have disabilities with those who are able-bodied, Peterson has made an indelible mark on the dance landscape, opening up opportunities for dancers of all physical abilities to connect to movement in a more inclusive way.
“I feel like the work is important to the culture,” Peterson says between rehearsals for the company’s 25th anniversary performances at the On.Stage Black Box at Miami-Dade County Auditorium on Thursday and Friday, performances that coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“It’s important not only to the dance community, but it is also important to the disability community. I have seen the way that the work has changed young dancers; it has made them mature, makes then step up to the plate and put egos aside. And I have also seen how it has really helped the children and teenagers who have had disabilities, building self-esteem and confidence — all the things that the dance does for able-bodied kids, it does for kids with disabilities.”
A graduate of The Boston Conservatory, Peterson moved to Miami in 1979 to perform at the Coconut Grove Playhouse long before Miami was considered a cultural hub. One of the original pioneers of contemporary dance in South Florida, she was turned on to mixed-ability dance in the late 1980s.
“I was aware of the contact improvisation workshops in San Francisco, where people with disabilities were invited to be equal participants with trained and non-dancers,” she says. “From the beginning, I loved that notion that dance could be universal, shared with others and be a powerful conduit to bring difference together.”
Formally established in 1990, Karen Peterson and Dancers (KPD) has steadily grown to be a model for mixed-ability dance, both nationally and through its extensive international cultural exchange efforts, particularly in Eastern Europe.
It was during one of these exchanges that Peterson began working with Ireland’s Croi Glan and Serbia’s Hajde Da mixed-ability dance companies, both of which will share the stage with Karen Peterson and Dancers this week.
Hajde Da, which means Let’s Go, have been KPD collaborators since 2011 and will present excerpts from Aphanisis. Choreographed by Boris Caksiran, the Belgrade-based company will incorporate Peterson’s company members into the work, which explores the complex nature of identities, especially in the identity-fractured world of the Balkans.
Performing for the first time in South Florida, Croi Glan (translated as Clean Heart) will present two new works: This Is, by British choreographer Adam Benjamin, and On the Wall, choreographed by David Bolger.
Also on the program is a new piece by Peterson, Step Back, which integrates her current troupe with projected video from one of the company’s first performances, Common Denominators.
“My whole concept was to show the original beginning seed, show the development, so you’ll see some of the more simple gestures used in the beginning,” Peterson says.
Surviving 25 years in an economic climate that has not always been favorable to the arts, Peterson acknowledges the significance of celebrating her silver anniversary.
“I have been here for a long time, have seen people come and go,” she says. “Miami is about the new — new comes in and new comes out. I have seen it all and for me, once I decided that there was no fame, no fortune and no money in this, that I love to do this and I can do it, I really try to just put one foot in front of the next and take it day by day.”
As for the what the next 25 years holds, Peterson hopes to bring on a managing director to assist with fundraising and management, which would allow her to focus on the creative work, including her dream of starting an annual mixed-ability festival.
“I feel very lucky,” she says. “But I do feel like it’s time to take some type of big jump. I am not sure what that is, but at 25 you really need to reevaluate where you came from and where you are going.”
ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.
If you go
What: Karen Peterson and Dancers 25th Anniversary Concert with special guests Croi Glan and Hajde Da.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday.
Where: On.Stage Black Box Theater at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami.
Cost: $25 ($15 students and seniors).