Defining “Dance”

Early this year I attended a performance by Parsons Dance Company at the Joyce Theater in SoHo.  David Parsons’ choreography fuses modern dance technique and awareness with theatrical charm .  The concert included older Parsons repertoire as well as two world premieres, thereby exhibiting both the evolution of the company’s work and the traditional Parsons aesthetic.

However, I noticed that the joyful spirit and fluid composition of the Parsons repertoire was somewhat disconnected from the middle piece, “A Stray’s Lullaby,” choreographed by Katarzyna Skarpetowska (former Parsons dancer, freelance choreographer, native of Warsaw, Poland).   This guest-choreographed piece, which seems to illustrate the struggle of laboring families during the time of the Dust Bowl/Great Depression, reminded me of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”  The work is staged on four dancers, two male and two female, and includes either a solo or duet that essentially “tells” each dancer’s “story.”  An article in the New York Press explains,

“‘A Stray’s Lullaby’ is an intimate work, set for four dancers who portray down and out characters on the margin of society. Their journey is a personal one and presented without comment, yet it is clear they are on a quest for salvation. Their stories are the rich and wise examples of our own vulnerable natures. The piece offers no clear solution, it only opens a window on the way we face our private demons and how we strive to improve our human condition.”

This storyline clearly breaks away from Parsons’ own choreographic motifs: circularity, love, joy, etc.  Yet, what struck me the most about “A Stray’s Lullaby” was the first solo of the piece, performed by Christina Ilisije. Ilisije, dressed in dreary beige slacks, a cream tank, and black lace up shoes, “danced” to a song with a twangy singer, strumming banjo, and rather dismal lyrics.  She maintained a strict diagonal plane of movement across the stage and often repeated a phrase of traveling movement, as if struggling to get from one side of the stage to the other.  While the first work of the evening, “Round My World,” incorporated fluid, circular, natural movement from the dancers, this piece required Ilisije to contort her body in order to create intense, twisted, and harsh choreography.  The New York Post describes, “The foursome moves unsteadily at first to traffic noises that change to scratchy-voiced blues. As the lights change from golden to a smoky haze, one woman dives and claws her way through.”  Ilisije contorts her limbs into uncomfortable shapes (both for her and the audience watching), falls gawkily, and limps across the stage by literally dragging her legs.

I was surprised that in my online research of “A Stray’s Lullaby,” I could not find any articles or reviews that really critiqued the movement of the piece, as it is so unusual and disturbing, but also beautiful at the same time.  From my cheap seats in the side balcony, I scanned the audience to notice their reactions.  No one was ruffling through their programs or checking their text messages on their phones.  No one coughed or mumbled to their neighbor either.  The entire theater was completely attentive and engaged with the solo performance, admiring the juxtaposition of beauty and deformity within one dancer.

The hamster wheels in my mind began to race.  Why is it that this onstage soloist depicting unnatural bodily movement is admired while everyday men and women who are born with or develop such movement styles are not?  Why is a limp so intriguing and innovative onstage but so unsettling and awkward on the sidewalk?  Why is it acceptable to watch this movement onstage but it is disrespectful to stare in real life?

These are the very questions that Heidi Latsky asked herself when she began creating The GIMP Project back in 2008.  The work is performed by both physically-abled and disabled dancers and confronts audiences’ preconceptions about about art and performance.

GIMP is a word we’re taught not to use as we’re taught not to stare at people who have physical disabilities.

GIMP also means ‘fighting spirit’, ‘interwoven fabric’ and ‘trembling with ecstasy”- definitions that are at the heart of the work.

GIMP examines the uncompromising ways we are often identified or defined by our physicality.

GIMP challenges the notion of beauty as a standard artifact of “photo-shopped” perfection with a tangible sensuality, a touch of voyeurism and a new frame of reference as both performers AND audiences are acutely aware of being watched. (The GIMP Project press kit)

“GIMP is without doubt a gleaming milestone in the progress of contemporary dance and theater, proving that the term ‘disabled dancer’ is an oxymoron.” – Dance Magazine

Various dance styles preach precision, sameness, technique, and ideals of perfection.  But the question is – do these standards actually limit dance as an art form?

Heidi Latsky Dance envisions a society where:

  • all bodies are recognized as viable, fascinating and expressive instruments;
  • difference is upheld, not feared;
  • increased understanding and communication take the place of isolation, alienation and lack of contact;
  • people learn to “live in” their own skin and do not detach from their bodies because of external and internally assimilated judgments and conventional standards;
  • one is encouraged to “own” one’s body, value it and use it to be expressive and truthful in ways that are empowering, enriching and unique;
  • a strong work ethic is valued and implemented;
  • and a high standard of excellence is not only desired but is achieved through sustained work and focus.