Each and every day, I lose myself in the immediacy of the moment, find myself in the joy of the movement. Each and every day, I learn more and more...and, within that new knowledge, realize that I have so much farther to travel.

Shallom Johnson is a contemporary dance artist, visual artist and freelance writer based in Vancouver BC. She holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Contemporary Dance from Simon Fraser University, and has been active in the Vancouver dance community as a choreographer, performer, and instructor since her graduation in 2004.

Shallom is interested in art in public spaces, site-specific performance, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community involvement. Her street-based artwork, performance and photography examines and documents who gets to make art, where it gets made, and where/how the creative process and product is viewed. In the future, she hopes to explore this theme further via new media and technologies, new methods of creation, collaboration and community engagement.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Farthest Earth From Thee: De-Exceptionalizing Disabilities in Performance

One of the projects I've been involved in is a show called The Farthest Earth From Thee. The project was commissioned in spring of 2007 by VSA Arts, and is a full-length production featuring a mixed-abilities cast of company and guest dancers. This FREE performance will be a "animated keynote" - a selection of excerpts from the production, accompanied by a discussion of the work led by Producing Artistic Director Peter Dimuro.

The creation process was highly collaborative. Peter acted as Artistic Lead on this work, crafting the movement generated by the entire cast. The movement was inspired by Shakespeare's sonnets - movement was generated by the sounds, metaphors, relationships and multiple meanings embodied in his work. The end product is a mix of dance and theatre, incorporating movement, music, character and spoken text.

During the Generating Dances institute that I attended in January 2007, we were exploring the beginnings of the idea that evolved into this work, playing with creating compositions inspired by words, and expanding on these initial phrases to generate longer, more detailed movement sequences. We used a lot of the toolbox exercises, which helped me to push beyond my comfort zone and experiment with new ideas and new ways of transferring those concepts into physicality.

This process really came in handy when I got back home to Vancouver, where I was working with 30Toes to create Between The Lines, a work inspired by the text found in children's literature.

All that said, it's interesting to come back to this project, now that the work is finished and has premiered, and is being remounted for another performance. It's intriguing to see where they've taken the initial ideas, and how it has evolved into a strong, cohesive work that really brings out the best in all of the cast members.

It's a new experience for me to be working with such a diverse group of performers, and I'm really enjoying getting to know everyone and finding new inspirations in the ways people - including myself - move beyond their physical or mental or emotional to come together and create something really amazing.

One thing that I love about the Dance Exchange is their ability to help people find value in their own physicality, in their own movement. To really accept who they are and what they have the ability to create, and to see it as beautiful, regardless of their body type or training or background. It bothers me that dance (and especially contemporary dance) is often very elitist, only acknowledging movers and ways of moving that conform to certain standards of virtuosity and technical prowess.

We have three performers in wheelchairs, one survivor of polio who has minimal mobility in his arms and hands, one performer with Downs' Syndrome, performers who are visually impaired, and many others (like myself) whose disabilities are less visible (but still there, nonetheless). And one cute li'l puppy dog, with cupid wings. Instead of thinking of a mixed abilities cast as a group of people with extra limitations, I like to think of this experience as a phenomenal opportunity to create something completely new and different from anything I've ever seen before - and that's exactly what they've done. In a way, having a structure like this to work in challenges you to make new and more interesting choices about movement and how the movement is presented to the audience.

It's also interesting to see how different people's movement looks and feels when transplanted to a differently-abled body...for example, Elver's movement uses a lot of swing and momentum from the back and shoulder to move his arms, which is a radically different choice than one I would have made - and probably not something I would have experienced had he not been there to create that specific phrase. I'm incredibly appreciative to everyone who participated in this work, for giving me a chance to meet them all and work with them in the process of remounting it for another performance. (And I'm sorry in advance if I run you over with my bike during the show! I promise, I'll be careful...)

Anyways. This show in particular is family-friendly and super-accessible, ensuring that all audience members will find a way to enjoy the performance. It is being held in honor of National Disabilities Awareness Month. We've got an ASL interpreter dancing and signing on stage (he's great!) as well as audio description, captioning, assistive listening, and the availability of programs in Braille and large print. Pretty cool, eh?

The show is happening on Monday October 1st at 4:30pm at the following location:

University of Maryland
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

Robert and Arlene Kogon Studio Theatre

University Boulevard and Stadium Drive

College Park, MD

The show is completely free of charge! Hope to see you there!

Photos from The Farthest Earth From Thee, in rehearsal.

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