Interviewed by Paul Kahn
Before becoming a professional dancer, if I was known arts circles at all, it was for founding and curating a film series where we actively explode stereotypes about disability called "disTHIS!"which has been running strong in NYC for over three years. Our tag line is "No handkerchief necessary; no heroism required." We've been written up in the Sunday New York Times Style section, among other places. Last spring we moved to New York University in partnership with their Council for the Study of Disability after we outgrew our old space. Anyway, a few years back, we screened a British short by the physical theatre company DV8 called, "The Cost of Living"which features David Toole, a dancer with no legs. I saw it and was blown away. Became instantly curious. I soon applied to do a dance intensive with the fabulous folks with the AXIS Dance Company, an integrated dance company in California. I went out to the left coast and for one glorious week was tossed into the deep end of integrated dance. The instructors, dancers, etc. are all fabulous. Physically, it was unlike anything I'd ever done before, I was exhausted - and hooked. It was a great introduction to dance with a fantastic group of people. I encourage everyone to check them out. Everybody at AXIS is incredible.
Shortly thereafter I was introduced to our choreographer, Heidi Latsky, by Lisa Bufano who attended the same AXIS intensive I did. Heidi and Lisa had been working on a piece for Lisa they were preparing to premiere in the Big Apple.
Heidi liked my gait, basically said, "I like the way you move"and we were off. I was soon doing movement work with her, rehearsing a few times a week when she got the idea of putting her Associate Director, Jeffery Freeze, and I together for a duet we eventually called "Two Men Walking."We performed it along with other excerpts from GIMP at the Kennedy Center in July 2009 as part of the National Endowment for the Arts National Summit on the Employment of People with Disabilities in the Arts. I was also there as the chair of the working group for careers in media.
Until I started working with Heidi, except for the week I spent with AXIS, I'd had no formal training whatsoever.
GIMP grew out of the initial work Heidi did with Lisa and myself. It just keeps growing and evolving. When the show premiered it included 3 non-disabled dancers, including Latsky, Freeze and Christina Briggs, and 3 disabled dancers, including myself, Lezlie Frye, an academic at NYU, and Catherine Long, a performance artist based in London. Akemi Nishida, another disabled dancer, has been performing with us recently as well. In the full show there's an aerialist Jennifer Bricker who is disabled as well. There is so much interest these days and there are so many people in and out of rehearsal I'm afraid I'd give you the wrong number if I try to nail it down (chuckles). The provocative title GIMP was my suggestion based on the various definitions the word has including "interwoven fabric"and "fighting spirit or vigor"in addition to the obvious.
I'm pretty busy -- just ask my girlfriend, Catherine Long, also a performer in GIMP (laughs). It all overlaps. I've already mentioned disTHIS!, which is a program of the Disabilities Network of New York City where I'm the Executive Director. The Disabilities Network works on public policy to insure access and inclusion for all New Yorkers with disabilities and their families. By the end of the year we'll have over 100 organizations and 1000 individual members who have joined our efforts. It's a fantastic coalition in the best city in the nation. Been a part of the organization over four years now and was promoted last June.
My accessible subway card application lists cerebral palsy; let's go with that.
Long overdue. People with disabilities have fought long and hard to be integrated into the other vital, important aspects of life, whether they are social, civic or economic, aspects non-disabled people have the luxury of often taking for granted. It is high time we see ourselves represented on the stage and screen as well -- and perhaps more importantly, that others see us there, too.
Rewards have been two-fold, really. First, I've really gotten into pushing myself physically and experiencing where that goes on a variety of levels. It astonishes me I went nearly 40 years without anyone really provoking or encouraging me to move in real fundamental ways. There's a whole other world out there that far too many people with disabilities are missing out on, because non-disabled professionals in the field of dance or whatever haven't been clever enough or pushed themselves enough to figure out how to include us. Thankfully, there are people like Heidi out there, in addition to groups like AXIS who have been at it a while now, that have both the skill and the vision to push the work to the next level. This is crucial because the standards for disabled artists have traditionally been so low. Previously, just showing up and pasting some macaroni on a plate was enough. We need to demand more. Both artists and audiences must have the integrity to judge our work on its artistic merits rather than simply allowing disabled artists to be inspirational by default which is what society often wants and expects us to be, so it goes no further. There has to be more to it than that. Choreographer Tamar Rogoff and Gregg Mozgala (who has cerebral palsy) are doing some very innovative dance work with the show "Diagnosis of a Faun,"which is similar to whatGIMP does in some ways, in that it takes the way Mozgala moves naturally and uses his movement to inform the choreography by making it integral to the work rather than shoehorning his physicality into something a non-disabled dancer could do. I'm extremely curious to see how audiences receive it. I see opportunities now that have never been possible before; it's all very exciting.With regard to disappointments, I don't have many but remain somewhat frustrated by the lack of imagination demonstrated by some critics who won't even see the show because they believe it to be "victim art," which is an inherently bigoted concept whose time has come and thankfully gone, but unfortunately they haven't received the memo yet. People with disabilities are developing an exciting new aesthetic. Some of the voices and methods of expression I'm seeing are vibrant and vital artistically, and it saddens and annoys me that those expressions are not always valued or recognized by those whose very job it is to report on them. People need to get their prejudices out of the way and open their minds to the worlds they are missing. Isn't art supposed to transform and transport us? You'd hope critics would lean into that often uncomfortable but invaluable space and see where it takes them. We can get rave reviews in places like DANCE Magazine and the Washington Post, but some critics still won't even see the show because of what they imagine GIMP to be rather than taking the work on its own terms. That's mind-boggling to me and audiences are missing out as a result.
In college I studied theatre, and the media advocacy I've done has always had elements of performance to it. You don't get invited back to CNN or the BBC if you can't connect with their audiences. AXIS gets big props for getting me started, and Heidi Latsky was brave enough to go there and develop it. I also have to thank the board of directors and the supporters of the Disabilities Network and our fiscal sponsor, the Fund for the City of New York, who understand the value of this work both creatively and culturally and have always supported my involvement in it, even when the commitment has taken me away from other, just as important, projects and campaigns. That has been invaluable. I can't imagine that my participation would've lasted as long as it has without it.
Not specifically, at least according to the definitions used in the ADA. But a dancer's life isn't easy. There are always nagging aches and pains. There is little I like more than a long, hot bath after a performance or grueling rehearsal. You get more used to it after a while, but it helps to pay close attention to where your limits are and how you can push them without going too far because, at least for me, recovering from an injury can take a bit longer than it might a non-disabled dancer. Surrounding yourself with understanding friends, family members and colleagues is absolutely key.
To watch the performance of GIMP on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, visit http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/millennium/archive.html and search for GIMP.top top