Invisible, marginalized and relegated to “other,” artists with disabilities are frequently hidden from our media and our culture, and that’s particularly true within dance.
The disabled rarely enjoy the spotlight on a stage. Bodies who don’t fit neatly into the stereotypical image of a dancer — lithe, muscular, whole — rarely occupy a space within a corps. But a roughly 30-year-old movement within dance — one that’s been gaining traction abroad and within our own backyard — is disrupting convention in an often overly rigid art form. Forward Motion festival, a four-day event focused on building an educational, collaborative platform for physically integrated dancers, will debut this week in Miami, launched by the local Karen Peterson and Dancers (KPD).
Featuring workshops, discussions, and performances by some of the most well-known and esteemed physically integrated dance companies in the world, Forward Motion will offer Miami dancers and dance patrons an opportunity to challenge their own preconceived notions of movement.
Though there is certainly an element of activism within physically integrated dance, Karen Peterson, the founder of physically integrated dance company KPD and the visionary behind the Forward Motion festival, hopes to break with the idea that physically integrated dance is a social practice.
“I still think it’s a challenge to convince individuals that physically integrated dance is not a therapeutic or social form,” Peterson said. “It’s all about the artistry, and advocacy is really secondary.”
Opening her studio nearly 27 years ago in Southwest Miami-Dade, Peterson gravitated toward physically integrated dance after she was approached by Mildred Levinson, a writer, activist and disabled lover of dance. “She contacted me to tell her story to an audience, and her story galvanized me to create a movement,” Peterson said. “I knew I could make dances from individuals who had something to offer through story narrative.”
For Peterson, physically integrated dance is an opportunity to flex her creativity as a choreographer, and utilize contact improvisation to set choreography that responds to the dancer rather than a rigid dance vocabulary.
“I’m interested in a person’s unique ability and how it can be integrated with all other abilities in the group,” Peterson said. “How can a person with the most severe cerebral palsy dance with one of the most accomplished dancers in Miami? It’s really about research, and defining how people move in order to move together.”
Joel Brown, a disabled dancer with London-based Candoco Dance Company, which will be participating in the festival, notes that the dance world remains reluctant to embrace inclusivity, often due to a lack of diversity within education. “Dance is still a codified art form,” he said. “In order to get a degree in dance, the bulk of work is technique classes.”
Physically integrated dance, on the other hand, breaks with technique and instead focuses on the individual. While contact improvisation is common among physically integrated dancers, more established companies like Candoco are focused on designing movement that relates to how these bodies navigate the real world. “[Candoco] is interested in us as individuals and our physicalities,” he said. “They’re more interested in movement that is utilitarian rather than aesthetic.”
The notion that an art form like dance can have a utilitarian purpose may seem farfetched, but that’s precisely what makes physically integrated dance so mesmerizing. A dancer missing a limb or bound to a chair finds liberation in making themselves useful to other dancers on stage. Marc Brew, the director of Axis Dance Company in Oakland, California, is particularly interested in exploring physically integrated dance through this lens. “I’ll give my dancers the task of being attached by different body parts. By restricting them, I’m exploring the possibilities of new partnering rather than traditional hand partnering,” he said. “I’m interested in exploring restriction — both which restrictions I can put, and what restrictions my dancers already have.”
While physically integrated dance is gaining traction in Europe and Canada — Candoco, for example, regularly performs on mainstream London stages — the U.S. rarely sees an opportunity to explore the medium. Forward Motion offers a chance to witness the creative process behind physically integrated choreography, while enjoying performances by some of the most esteemed physically integrated dance companies in the world. Brew is excited to present “Radical Impact” during the festival, the first choreography he set for AXIS.
For her part, Peterson will present a work in a loose, improvisational format, allowing the audience to view how the dancers interpret minimal directives and imagine their own movement. “When there’s raw material, there’s nothing but a blank slate that comes out of improvisation,” said Peterson. She hopes that this experience will open up perceptions about physically integrated dance — just as the festival itself is designed. “I think for a Miami audience who wants to be educated and enlightened about physically integrated dance, that this is a fascinating process.”
If you go
- What: Forward Motion opening event presented by Karen Peterson and Dancers. Short showcase from KPD and Candoco Dance Company
- When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26
- Where: The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami. Free.
- What: Forward Motion conference
- When: 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept 27; $25 registration fee
- What: Forward Motion panel discussion
- When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27; free
- Where: Both events at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami
- What: Candoco Dance Company
- When: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28
- What: Axis Dance Company and short works by KPD
- When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29
- Where: Both events Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami
- Info: Tickets $25 per performance; www.forwardmotionmiami.com