Since their founding in 2007, Propeller Dance has been striking back at conceptions of what it means for a body to be able, of the types of bodies that belong on stage, and of what virtuosity means: in their words, virtuosity is “the ability to move an audience, through presence, connection, human spirit, as well as physicality.”
They are a company of dancers with and without disabilities, who teach and perform contemporary integrated dance, which showcases “dance artists of diverse minds and bodies”, whose performances blend dance traditions with improvisation. One of the company’s mottos is “If you can breathe, you can dance.”
Disabled people aren’t here to be pitied and taken care of or to make able bodied people realize how fortunate they are not to be us.
Many see integrated dance as part of the larger disability justice movement. Disability justice embraces the difference among bodies and, rather than seeing disability itself as a problem to be solved, works to draw attention to physical and cultural barriers that delineate who is able to participate, while also looking at how the marginalization of people with disabilities intersects with other forms of oppression.
Integrated dance offers us an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of bodies that exist, and the different ways we move and take up space and interact with one another.
Apt613 interviewed Renata Soutter, co-artistic director and choreographer for “Umujiat”, and Liz Winkelaar, the choreographer of “Spasticus”, by email. This interview has been edited.
Apt613: Shara Weaver, you’ve studied dance both in Canada and throughout West Africa. What surprised you about the ways the dance traditions you’ve studied were similar or different from one another?
Shara Weaver: When studying Asante and Ga dance in Ghana, and Malinke dance in Mali, I was struck by how completely embedded people are in the arts from the moment they are born. People learn and participate in music, dance and song at social situations like weddings, funerals, coming of age events regardless of age or ability, whereas Eurocentric dance forms such as ballet and modern dance are more about individualistic expression.
In Canada, you usually have to go to dance studios or the theatre to learn and see these forms of dance. But there is sharing across continents. Eurocentric styles of dance are influencing West Africa and hip hop, jazz and tap dance all are rooted in Africa. To live and train as a professional dancer, regardless of form, I find very similar… there are a lot of rehearsal hours, a lot of sweat and discipline.
I love contemporary dance’s place in our world to allow people to express themselves as individuals. I love the traditional dance forms I have studied in Ghana and Mali in their deep interconnectedness to music and song, complexity and ability to preserve a people’s history. Some of my teachers I think of as moving libraries…
In my new work “Circuit”, which was created in close collaboration with the dancers, these themes emerge—individuals express struggle and isolation and transform into a place of presence, interconnectedness and appreciation for each other through movement.
“Umujiat” is the result of a collaboration between Propeller Dance and the young people and artists of the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre. How did this collaboration come about, and what form did it take?
Renata Soutter: Three years ago, we shared a table for organizations nominated for ‘Great Grant Awards’ by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Speaking with the directors of the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre (OICC) we both realised we had some shared values- that of the importance and value of culture, and the belief that young people are our future and must be given opportunities to fulfill their potential.
It has been such a privilege to facilitate the creative expression of these vibrant young people. They are so hard working and have so much pride in their culture that the world needs to hear. We have been honoured to have the guidance of elder Sytukie Joamie on this project. The Tukimut program has brought in Inuit artists and the students have learned and practiced throat singing, cultural dances and songs and games that we have then woven together into a contemporary dance-theatre piece for young audiences. Collaboration has been at the root of the project.
Can you tell me about the legend on which “Umujiat” was based, and what the resonance of this particular story was that resulted in it being chosen?
Renata Soutter: We took inspiration for this piece from a traditional legend “The Soul that Let itself Be Born Again in all the Animals of the Earth” from the Netsilik region of Nunavut. The story shares the idea that humans and animals are not that different and that both are deserving of respect. Personally speaking, at a time when mainstream society is increasingly devaluing life that is not human, and disconnecting from the natural world, I found this extremely resonant. Umajuit means animals in Inuktituit.
When “Spasticus Autisticus”, the song on which the dance piece “Spasticus” is based, was released, it drew fire for its use of a reclaimed slur. What do you see as being the role of reclaiming and reworking slurs, stereotypes, and misconceptions?
Liz Winkelaar: It is very empowering for a marginalized group to “reclaim” the language used to repress it. Part of that power comes through humour, which affords distance from the language, makes it open to examination, and reveals the . But it also robs the language of its power to hurt. The insult becomes a badge of honour, a password to an exclusive club. Punk-rocker Ian Dury took the belittling word “Spastic” and associated it with the leader of a slave rebellion, Spartacus. And he took the label “Autistic” and turned it into the Latin-sounding “Aristicus”. “Spasticus Artisticus” is an heroic freedom fighter, a revolutionary artist. When Dury wrote the song, a “spastic” was someone to be pitied and forgotten. Like Dury, we are showing that we spastics are a force to be reckoned with.
What do you see as being the role of integrated dance within larger disability justice movements?
Liz Winkelaar: By dancing, we contribute to the disability justice movement. We are breaking down the stereotypes that say that disabled people have a limited role to play in society. Disabled people aren’t here to be pitied and taken care of or to make able bodied people realize how fortunate they are not to be us. Propeller embodies the potential of disabled and able-bodied artists to co-operate, to work as a unit, to enhance each other’s particular talents, to be equal.
Renata Soutter: Integrated dance is a projection of how I’d like to see society be in the future, where there is a deep valuing of difference as a positive representation of our humanity. People of all abilities work as equals – truly as equals – and all are teachers and learners. Integrated dance has a lot to teach the contemporary dance community – that of respect, and that dance is for all, and a dismantling of the hierarchy, and a shift in the valuing of typical definitions of beauty. At Propeller we make space for people of all abilities, and not creating dance only with people with para-Olympian type bodies.
The more I do this work, the more I am struck by how radical, innovative and politically profound we are within many communities. It surprises me! But I graciously accept that challenge and my role as an artist to reflect and project how I would like our world to be!
A slogan of Propeller Dance is “If you can breathe, you can dance.” What would you say to someone who has been made to feel like their body or experiences exclude them from the world of dance?
Liz Winkelaar: I’d say, “Come and watch a Propeller performance, enrol in our classes. If you want to dance, we will help you become the best dancer you can be.” I’d say, “If you want to dance in a company, you will have to study and work hard. If you want to dance recreationally, Propeller will help you overcome your fears and doubts. In the process, you’ll have a great time.
There will be two shows only of ROAR, June 17th and 18th, both at 7 pm on the GCTC Mainstage. Tickets are available at GCTC’s Box Office at 1233 Wellington W., by phone at 613-236-5196 or through the GCTC website. Tickets are $25 and $15 for students, seniors and low income patrons.