Say the word dance or think of a dancer, and legs invariably come to mind.
What if, however, that weren’t always the case? What if someone were to subvert the traditional notions of what to expect from form and movement?
In South Florida, that someone has been choreographer Karen Peterson, who in 1990 founded Karen Peterson and Dancers to create and promote dance works that combine the abilities and talents of performers both with and without disabilities. The result is an inclusive, “mixed-ability” dance experience.
This Friday and Saturday, at the New World School of the Arts, Peterson will showcase a collection of pieces under the program Classical Music Meets Contemporary Dance, featuring new works, live music by The CrossTown String Quartet, and two guest dancers from the REVolution Dance Company in Tampa.
“I’ve always stressed that I want people with disabilities to be equal to their ensemble,” shares Peterson one recent afternoon at her rehearsal space, Excello, in The Falls industrial area.
As she tells it, Peterson has worked with the disabled community for over two decades now.
“Twenty-two years ago a woman called me. She was in a chair, and wanted to be involved in a collaboration, and I worked with her,” remembers the artistic director. “And I just kept being inspired by new people who came with disabilities.”
Whether in Miami or anywhere the company goes — Bosnia, Brazil, Italy, Scotland, and Spain, to mention a few places — in the end, the message should always be the same, believes Peterson: to feel uplifted.
“I think, first, there’s always a little bit of uncomfortable-ness in someone’s thinking. Maybe they need to shift, maybe question what they see, and then just see it,” says Peterson. “So many people have said to me ‘We don’t really know what to expect.’”
Precisely what dancer John Beauregard — stunning as he manipulates his wheelchair while performing a duet called Give and Take, with dancer Jenny Larsson, to the sounds of tango maestro Astor Piazzola — asks this writer after the rehearsal is over.
“Is this what you expected?” he says.
Beauregard has been in a wheelchair for 26 years, due to a construction fall, and has danced for 12. “I’ve done every study they’ve ever done at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. That’s why I’m in Miami. Because of the research. Ever since I’ve been injured I’ve been trying not to be.”
He went to a lecture once, he explains, in which the take-home message was that old cliché “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“And I thought, ‘B——t’,” he remembers. “As I left that lecture hall, on the very next door there was a flyer — ‘Modern dancers, wheelchair dancers, wanted.’ And I go, ‘What is that?’ I couldn’t even comprehend. Not only did I take the little number off, but I took the whole thing down and showed up, and I’ve never looked back.”
In an interesting twist to what the company does, Peterson also has her abled dancers move in the wheelchair. And that presents a whole new set of challenges to that kind of performer.
Such is the case of Bernadette Kalyan Salgado, who found the wheelchair extremely difficult to maneuver the first time she experienced it, and who uses it to dance with wheelchaired partner Adam Eckstat in the duet Take on Vivaldi.
“You have to switch your brain because when you pull the right side you’re going to the left, and when you pull the left you’re going to the right,” says Salgado.
To synchronize everyone, she adds, Peterson does a lot of exploration and has the company practice exercises using different body parts. Thus, for everyone involved, both performers and audiences, every show is an invitation to think differently.
Karen Peterson and Dancers, with the CrossTown String Quartet; Saturday, May 12, at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, May 13, at 4:00 p.m.; at the New World School of the Arts, 25 N.E. 2nd St., 8th floor.
Tickets available at the door, $20 (general), $15 (seniors) $5 MDCC, NWSA, MDCPS students with ID. All mothers ½ price ticket on Mothers Day; karenpetersondancers