It’s not polite to stare. Especially when you perceive the person you are looking at as different in some way. But if you take your eyes off quickly, there won’t be time for your perception of differences to change.
“On Display” disturbs this pattern. It’s a performance art exhibition, a group of people who act as if they were sculptures. You pose in silence with your eyes open or move very slowly between poses with your eyes closed. They do this for hours. There is plenty of time to look, see, and be seen.
These bodies have differences due to their construction. “On Display” is a project by Heidi Latsky Dance, a kind of society that is described as physically integrated. This means that the diverse dancers include many disabled people. The project started as guerrilla art in Times Square in 2015, marking the 25th anniversary of the Disabled Americans Act.
“In the silence, the dancers are beautiful and vulnerable,” said Ms. Latsky in a telephone interview. “But there is also a ferocity in their ability to be exposed. The longer you are silent, the more you can see. “
That first iteration went so well that Ms. Latsky remarked to a friend that she wished people could do it around the world on a given day. The friend – Kelly Drummond Cawthon, creative director of Second Echo, a Tasmanian ensemble that trains and employs artists with and without disabilities – replied with a date: December 3rd, the United Nations’ International Day of People with Disabilities. This is how “On Display Global” was born.
Since then, it has expanded from New York and Australia to dozens of locations around the world. And this year it’s getting even bigger – a 24-hour Zoom meeting on Thursday with artists from more than 30 countries, geographically grouped into segments that are half an hour to two hours long. Join at 12 noon Eastern Time and it’s a window to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. If you join later, the virtual view may open to apartments in Amsterdam or rooftops in Iran.
Also from Thursday (through Saturday), the Kinetic Light disabled arts ensemble will broadcast a film of their acclaimed work “Descent” on the University of Minnesota, Northrop website. In terms of goal and approach, “Descent” is very different from “On the display”. And that means that the two projects together can shed a little light on the diversity of today’s disability dance.
“The field is wide and complex,” said Alice Sheppard, Artistic Director of Kinetic Light, in a recent interview. “Nobody should be seen as a representative of the whole. As we would expect from any other group, there are different subcultures, different interpretations. “
‘On Display’: See the real you
“When I dance in ‘On Display’, I give the audience the opportunity to gawk,” said Quemuel Arroyo, who joined Heidi Latsky Dance in 2015. “I allow them to see me, but the real I see me as I want to be seen. “
For Mr. Arroyo, as a dancer, as a performer, this means “a person with abilities despite my disability”. He broke his spine in a mountain bike accident 13 years ago and has been using a wheelchair since then. As an athlete – climber, sailor, diver – he compares the experience of being “on display” with skydiving.
“It’s scary and it’s uncomfortable,” he said. “They think, ‘What the hell do I do when these people look at me?’ But the other part of my mind is like, ‘Isn’t that great? Here I am tearing up misunderstandings about what a person with disabilities can offer.’ “
“It shows that we’re not very different from each other,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter that I’m Dominican, that I’m in a wheelchair. It is my humanity that people see. “
Donald Lee, another member of the company, said “On Display” is about “calming down and deflating and getting to the core of who you are.” It’s also about stepping into the unknown. “They are shaped like a Calder cell phone by time and the environment,” he said. “You become an art, a self-portrait.”
When Mr. Lee, a bilateral amputee, first saw photos of himself in On Display, he was shocked. “I had never looked at my stumps,” he said. “I had never seen myself as a work of art.”
Mr. Lee believes that people who see “On Display” can experience similar revelations. “When you see me, you see something in yourself,” he said.
Both Mr Arroyo and Mr Lee stress the importance of integration and complain that their non-disabled colleagues are often treated as invisible by viewers and the media. “The whole idea of ’On Display’ is that we want everyone to be seen,” said Mr Lee. “You don’t see a disabled person. You see our society. You see yourself “
The aspects of this year’s event will of course be different. The common view of Zoom is not the same. Everyone is muted. Because of the pandemic, many, if not most, of the artists will be home alone in their private spaces. That’s a new kind of intimacy and exposure. (The 10 dancers from Nalitari, a troupe in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, gather aloof in their company studio. They have no internet connection at home.)
For the first time a group from Beirut joins. Some of these participants were physically handicapped in an explosion that struck the city in August recently. And as the group’s organizer, Shirine Jurdi, explained in a video call – a call that was interrupted by one of Lebanon’s regular power outages – attending the event also has benefits for those who experience other challenges and trauma, like many in Beirut. She said a virtual lesson with Ms. Latsky relaxed her: “It was the first night since the explosion that I slept.”
Even in virtual form, the project’s ethos of inclusivity remains constant. “It’s not just people with disabilities,” said Ms. Latsky. “It is a meditative space in which the world can come together.” Viewers have the option to turn their own cameras on or off.
Within ‘Descent’: ‘Access is not a checklist’
Ms. Sheppard began her dance career in physically integrated companies. This is still the only way for a disabled dancer to receive training. But what she does with Kinetic Light, she emphasized, differs from the physically integrated model. It is rooted in the conversations, politics and perspectives of people in the disabled community, in internal jokes and states of being.
“I’m not an amazing person doing all of this work,” she said. “Here in culture, people have practices, knowledge and history that go far beyond the question of ability or inability, the language of ‘despite disability’. This work is how people are. It’s just that it’s not fully registered in the non-disabled world. “
Almost everything from “Descent” – from the choreography and performance to the design of the lighting, the set, the sound and the tailor-made wheelchairs to the film editing and audio description app – is the work of disabled artists. “And that changes the job,” said Ms. Sheppard. “It allows you to ask different questions about who is centered.”
Take the set. While access ramps are often ugly or just functional, this ramp has been redesigned for the aesthetic and sensual pleasure of wheelchair users. As Ms. Sheppard and Laurel Lawson propose a love story between Venus and Andromeda and borrow poses from Rodin sculptures, they ride their turns with roller-derby power and ice-dancing grace.
Or consider the audio version for blind viewers. It is less a description of a visual experience than a separate sonic, accompanying work of art. “Sighted people who are less experienced in listening often find it overwhelming,” noted Ms. Sheppard.
“Instead of access being retroactive accommodation, we think about access from the start,” said Ms. Sheppard. “When you invite someone to a show, you want them to experience it and not someone else’s description. We’re not there yet, but we’re working on a fair aesthetic experience. “
“Access is not a checklist,” she continued. “It’s a relationship, a promise. It’s creative, generative and constantly growing. “