Dance troupe integrates disabled and non-disabled dancers into single expression of art
Tashkent, Uzbekistan (UzDaily.com) --
The scenes from the Visage Movement Theatre’s modern dances are both stunningly beautiful and deeply moving.
Set on a nearly empty stage against a black background, one piece from “I Dream that I’m Walking” features a woman who is deaf incorporating the movements of sign language into a dance that flows as gently as wind whispering through a forest. Another, from “Ivory Gull Over the Blue Sea,” shows a mother and father twirling a child who has difficulty walking in a dance that embodies the beauty of movement and familial love.
Another powerful piece from “Improvisation from Life” opens with a young man struggling to pull himself out of a wheelchair and onto a ladder. He then begins an almost symbiotic duet with another dancer who lifts the young man into flight.
These are just a few of the many pieces in which the Visage Movement Theatre combines the movements of highly trained modern dancers with other dancers with a range of physical and mental disabilities. At the beginning of a show, audience members may see two sets of dancers: those with disabilities and those without. But by the end of the performance, said Visage art director Liliya Sevastyanova, they see just one group of dancers – one group of people – using dance as a way to express who they are.
“What I want to show is a message that comes from my own heart, something from deep within me,” said Sevastyanova, the choreographer who in 1982 founded Visage as the only modern dance troupe in Uzbekistan. “That’s what I try to teach my students: to pass their feelings through their movements.”
Over the years, Visage has received support from private donors and the artistic community, the Uzbekistan Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the embassies of several nations, including France, Italy, Switzerland and, recently, the United States.
With support from the US Embassy, Sevastyanova attended two weeks of workshops in August on integrating people with disabilities in modern dance productions. The Axis Physically Integrated Dance Summer Intensive Workshop under the leadership of Judith Smith in Oakland, California, and the Integrated Dance Intensive Summer Course at the University of Washington in Seattle, focused on techniques, improvisation and composition in creating modern dances.
The Axis and University of Washington integrated dance programs are renowned in the US dance communities not just for their work with people with disabilities, but for the sophistication of the productions. “The quality of the dancing takes your breath away,” wrote arts critic Allan Ulrich of the Axis group in a review in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. The fact that some of the dancers have disabilities is secondary to the meaning and beauty of the art, he wrote.
Sevastyanova’s participation in the workshops came about from contacts she made through the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City program. A friend from the Seattle sister-city delegation, Rich Hawkins, put her in contact with Jurg Koch, the director of the University of Washington’s integrated dance programs. He invited her to participate in the workshop and urged her to take part in the Axis program.
For Sevastyanova, it was a chance to share ideas and learn how other integrated dance troupes develop.
“I felt a great need to learn how professionals work in this area,” she said, adding that she had never had formal training in using dance as a form of rehabilitation. “We share a common goal: to help those with disabilities through art, to help themselves live in modern society.”
US Ambassador Richard Norland said he was deeply moved when he saw that art in action as the Visage dancers performed January 8 in Tashkent.
“This was a ‘first’ for me – I had never before seen this combination of disabled and able-bodied dancers performing together, and the effect was emotionally magical, extremely powerful,” said Ambassador Norland. “I hope we will be able to arrange a visit to the US for this group soon.”
The Visage troupe has been integrating disabled and non-disabled dancers since 2003. The move toward an integrated dance group evolved over time through the group’s modern, improvisational style and a culmination of many life experiences and moral questions, Sevastyanova said.
She recalled when she was a little girl in a village in the Ferghana Region, she had a friend whose grandfather had lost both legs in World War II. He stayed home all the time and seldom had any visitors, she said.
“We’d just peek in at him, but we didn’t consider going in to talk,” she said. “We didn’t have a culture of considering handicapped people as normal. Handicapped people were considered outcasts, something to be hidden, some mystery.”
In 1996, Sevastyanova was conducting improvisational dance workshops in France when, for the first time, a girl who used crutches was part of her group. Sevastyanova decided to give that girl an important role in the group’s performance.
“We always work from our inner selves. That’s what I wanted to instill in that girl,” she said. During the performance, the girl began to elevate herself. As she lifted her arms, from the audience’s perspective, her crutches began to look like the wings of a bird, she said. “The soul is so much bigger and more important than your body… The audience doesn’t see your bodily imperfections. They see what is inside.”
In 2000, Sevastyanova gave an interview in which she spoke about her experience in France. Leaders of the Center for Rehabilitation and Integration of Children with Disabilities in Tashkent read about it and contacted her about teaching dance to some of the children they work with. Integrating people with disabilities into the Visage troupe grew out of that relationship.
Today, Visage has about 30 dancers, of whom about 20 have special needs ranging from blindness and deafness to use of wheelchairs and developmental disorders. They rehearse two times a week or more when they are preparing for the seven or eight performances they give each year. When they dance, they are a single unit, whatever their individual needs and abilities may be, Sevastyanova said.
“Every person is gifted by God. By performing, you share that gift,” she said. “This is what I believe is the harmony in human relationships, that we share our gifts with others.”