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Integrated performance evolves as All Bodies Dance Project pushes into film and more

by Janet Smith on May 29th, 2019

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All Bodies Dance Project enjoys turning expectations upside-down.

One able-bodied dancer rolls around on a platform with wheels while the other, who has a disability, uses her manual wheelchair. They interact, pushing, pulling, and circling each other around the space, eventually ending up on each other’s devices.

The expressive movement conversation between Peggy Leung and Harmanie Taylor, called Inflect, is one of several new works debuting at All Bodies Dance Project’s full evening of live pieces and short films, Magic & Remembering. And it shows how integrated dance is evolving for the pioneering company.

By nature, choreography featuring people of differing abilities is about relationships. The company is constantly trying to challenge expectations, rarely showing a standing body alongside sitting dancers.

For Inflect, All Bodies cofounder Naomi Brand explains: “They started from a question or curiosity about placing both dancers on wheels and how that would impact their way of moving. It’s sort of an exploration around power and how we impact each other.

“It’s not that the pieces are about accessibility,” she adds. “It’s always, ‘What is that body’s ability to express itself in these spaces?’”

Adds Taylor, who’s joined Brand at a café in Yaletown: “What kind of relationship establishes between the two, rather than a standing and sitting relationship? And how does that change the conversation?”

Elsewhere on the program, Martin Borden’s short film “Sanctuary” focuses on two dancers navigating a public space, the Roundhouse Turntable Plaza. Alice Sheppard and Danielle Peers’s film “Inclinations” finds four manual wheelchair users swinging under and around the rails of a long, sleek ramp. Cheyenne Seary’s Clove Hitch explores belonging by having its five performers knot together in myriad ways.

Whether on camera or on-stage, these and other works have an intimacy and raw emotion you might not associate with integrated dance of the past, which, Brand explains, “has a tendency to emphasize the tricks and athletics and not get to vulnerability”.

Altogether, Magic & Remembering is a snapshot of the rising level of integrated dance—a field that, not so long ago, was out of reach for people like Taylor. She remembers being back in Grade 1, when one of her classmates would come to school in a tutu. Taylor, who did not use a wheelchair then but walked with a limp, begged her mother to enroll her in dance class. At the time, her mother told her she couldn’t because it was too expensive. It wasn’t until many years later that her mom revealed the truth: “The teacher said, ‘No, she’ll hold up the class,’ ” says Taylor, who grew up with spina bifida. “It was because the instructor didn’t want to teach me to adapt.”

Many years later, at the University of Alberta while she was using a wheelchair, she decided to take an integrated dance class, and her world changed. “The instructor said, ‘Move in a way that makes you feel comfortable,’ ” says Taylor, who had previously seen movement in her chair as only something she did out of necessity. “The idea that I could move in a chair in a way that felt good to me was a major ‘Aha!’ moment.”

Taylor, now based in Vancouver, today ranks as one of only a handful of professional dancers with disabilities in the country, regularly training in the U.S. and the U.K. She features in almost all the works on the Magic & Remembering program. “It’s pretty incredible to say, ‘This is my job,’” she says with a smile.

Taylor’s trajectory mirrors the increasing credibility of an art form in the contemporary-dance world. “We’re in a time where accessibility is at the forefront,” Brand says. “But with that also comes responsibility—to present work but also to present work that is high-quality. In the years I’ve worked in integrated arts, you could rest on ‘Isn’t that nice’ before—a patronizing presenting of the work rather than saying, ‘This is contemporary dance.’”

That shift in attitude is also reflected by the fact this is All Bodies Dance Project’s first official show at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, the professional hub for the city and Western Canada. “There’s something very significant about putting us in the Dance Centre,” says Brand, who adds it’s her troupe’s first foray into film work, as well. “It is a risky show for us, and it feels fresh.”

Magic & Remembering: Dances and Films Featuring Dancers With and Without Disabilities is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Saturday to Monday (June 1 to 3).

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