By: CultureOwl
Performing Arts
By Sean Erwin

Choreographer Karen Peterson talks about wheelchairs like some people talk about horses.

As artistic director of Florida’s leading physically integrated dance company – Karen Peterson and Dancers (KPD) – Peterson finds that the greatest challenge to choreographing wheelchair-bound dance is not the physical limitations of her performers but rather the “personalities” of their chairs.

“One of the most difficult things in dance practice or performance is to get wheelchairs to move in unison. The chairs have a mind of their own,” she says. “One has a battery that reacts this way, one’s wheels stick a little bit. The wheelchairs engage my imagination – from the speed of the chairs to their unique features to how fast they go.”

Peterson’s sensitivity for the intricate motions of wheelchairs as a building block for artistic meaning will be on full display when KPD presents “Lost and Found” at 4 p.m. April 11 in the Pinecrest Gardens Banyan Bowl, 11000 SW 57th Ave., Miami. The show will feature five duets – three mixed-ability dances and two able-bodied dances – that push the envelope of how dance can create meaning out of the pandemic. The losses it has left behind, she says, inspired her to tackle new ideas.

“What is it like to crumble?” she says. “What is it like for the body to crumble and the bones to crumble? I can support your weight and you can support mine, but what happens when that support is not there?”

The duets experiment by setting up sympathetic relays between audience and performers through weight displacements and games with negative space.

“In the duets, I was focused on conveying physical empathy through the movements I developed,” Peterson says. “Physical empathy is having your arms full and having your arms empty, or having your chest open with someone there or the same chest open with no one there. There is a lot of coming together and pulling apart and filling and vacating space for one another.”

All seven company members will perform in the program. Asked about safety protocols and precautions, Peterson says: “The three wheelchair dancers were very mindful of what the virus could do to them if they got a severe case of the virus. They faced the difficulty of many live performers during this time, of the need to be masked while performing and exerting energy and feeling trapped within the mask.”

Still, in discussing mixed-ability dance, Peterson returns to the quirks of her performers’ wheelchairs.

(Photo courtesy of Karen Peterson; design by Heber Siqueiros)

“My mother had a stroke three years ago. I know from her experience that ordinary wheelchairs are very heavy and not very elegant. Some chairs just lend themselves to being more athletic,” she says. “In our company, one dancer is totally strapped into the chair so that he can balance on one wheel, and that’s unique to his chair and body. Whereas another’s chair is more like a solid piece of furniture.”

Specific types of chairs are so critical to a performance that if a chair changes, the choreography has to be adapted or dropped.

KPD dancer Jesus Vidal’s duet with Penelope Huerta pushes his current chair beyond its operational limits. His chair from Ki Mobility “is portable and compact and very responsive,” he says.

“My favorite part is when I tilt all the weight of my chair and my body back with her behind me,” Vidal says. “I really allow myself to be vulnerable when I do that. She presses me back into place and then we separate, and when we meet up again, she closes my eyes.”

Adds Vidal: “It is both an abstract and narrative duet. It begins abstract then ends up narrative. We each have a solo at the beginning, and then as the duet progresses we exchange roles.”

Jesus began dancing ballet, hip-hop, jazz and contemporary routines at age 5, just for fun. Later, he became a professional gymnast, becoming an eight-time Dominican Republic national champion. But Vidal’s gymnastic career ended when he suffered a spinal injury during a floor exercise.

“Once you get injured, you think there is not a lot of opportunity to do dance. You get stuck in a bubble where you think you have lost use of your legs and the opportunities that come with them, and society says the same,” he says.

Then he discovered wheelchair dance. He caught a performance by AXIS Dance Co., a California-based, mixed-ability troupe, and learned they pursued dance full time. He was invited to train with some of the performers, and that was enough for him to catch the bug.

“I would now love to switch to a sports chair,” he says. “They are expensive, and I want to get the right one. Those … AXIS dancers use a small, light chair, and they use it solely for dance.”

In describing the dance experience before and after his accident, Vidal refers to his chair almost as a third partner.

“Before when I danced, I had more control of my body, and my job was to be aware of my partner,” he says. “Now I have three jobs – to be connected to my chair, be connected to my body, and be aware of my partner.”

WHAT: Karen Peterson and Dancers present “Lost and Found”

WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday, April 11

WHERE: Pinecrest Gardens’ Banyan Bowl amphitheater, 11000 SW 57th Ave., Pinecrest

COST: Tickets will be sold in pods of two, at a price of $20 for general admission (available online at tinyurl.com/PinecrestKPD) or $10 for those age 18 and younger (available at the door on the day of the show, with valid identification)

INFORMATION: Visit Karenpetersondancers.org, email karen@karenpetersondancers.org or call 305-298-5879

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of theater, dance, visual arts, music and performing arts news. 

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