Karen Peterson and Dancers Season of Dance
Mixed abilities dance first occurred to Karen Peterson in 1990. She received a phone call from a wheelchair bound woman who wanted a part in a ballet. “My direction to her was to write about her physical memories, and that gave us the direction for our duet. She gave me incredible inspiration to do something I’d never done before. I was really bored as a choreographer and she gave me something to sink my teeth into,” says Peterson, a veteran dancer and choreographer. For the next 23 years, mixed abilities dance would be the foundation of her internationally known dance company, Karen Peterson and Dancers. “It’s a force and an energy that keeps going round and round,” she says. Known as KPD for short, the company has featured about 35 choreographies and toured throughout Florida, the United States, Europe and the Americas. About half of the works use mixed ability dancers, which includes a range of formally trained students from New World School of the Arts and Florida International University, as well as a paraplegic, a quadriplegic, and a dancer with Spina Bifida and others. Among the company’s upcoming performances, it will hold its more extensive “23rd season” concert on April 11 and 12, before heading to Belgrade in May. On stage, Peterson’s dancers with disabilities are tightly woven with abled body dancers and are equally supportive to execute complex, professional caliber choreography. “It’s a particular art form that has developed along the way,” says Peterson, who has collaborated with the Miami String Project, among other entities, that she said helped attract new audiences. Her clever use of lighting, shadows, backdrops, and mixed media add another element of entertainment to the company’s performances./ Peterson talked to Artburst about the special qualities of mixed-abilities dance, her upcoming performance and how this art form has transforms lives. What is the process of turning people with disabilities into dancers? A: I use movements that work best on their bodies. Say there’s a dancer who can only move his right elbow and his head, so you of think of how many ways you can find that uses those body parts. You find common denominators as a group. These are simple tasks. It’s almost like working with a palette and meshing together certain colors. Your company breaks the mold of traditional dance. Therefore, what is your idea of a dancer? Someone with an open hearted, generous spirit of physicality that needs to be shared with others. Intimate, honest and willing to be flexible and patient and willing to be part of a creative process, where you don’t know where you’re going, but at the end of the line there will be something that’s waiting for me. How do you convince a disabled person that they can actually perform as a dancer? And how have abled body dancers embraced the concept. My experience is that it’s not for everyone. I don’t think you really need to sell the idea. I think dancers have decided that it’s something that they want to do. They understand my vision and my work and that they are part of the creative process. Both disabled and abled body dancers balance the other out 50 percent. What type of impact has performing had on some of your dancers with disabilities? On March 10, we had a performance with 190 students with learning disabilities from Miami middle and high schools. The kids really love it. They usually don’t get the opportunity to train with dance instructors and it’s a very supportive day. They all love to move and dance. Despite their learning disability, there was never a moment when they didn’t want to dance and express themselves. From where do you draw inspiration to create dance pieces? Some are driven by music. Some are driven by visual images such as animals, water and trees. But this particular concert (April 11, 12) follows a narrative of one man and two women drinking in a café and what can happen. The dancers range in age from 28 to 63, so there’s a wide-range of abilities and a wide-range of ages. That’s a great maturity and a great weight to the work. What are some of the most memorable experiences that you’ve had with your dance company over the years? I feel very lucky. I’ve met some beautiful people along the way. We had a performance in New York City in 2003 at a mixed-ability festival. My first teaching residency in Brazil, which was the first thing I did by myself out of the country. We were welcomed, accepted and embraced in their country. And in 2010, when I made my dancers jump from their wheelchairs into my pool. We video-taped them underwater and the footage was used as a backdrop to one of the performances. Karen Peterson and Dancers Season of Dance With New Work, Thursday, April 11 at 8:00 p.m. and Friday, April 12 at 8:00 p.m., Miami-Dade County Auditorium On Stage Black Box, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami; tickets $18, $13 students; www.karenpetersondancers.org.