INTEGRAL BODIES: A Great Leap Forward Into Authenticity
This is not your mother’s college dance recital. This much becomes abundantly clear from the opening moments of INTEGRAL BODIES, the UH dance-theatre performance which debuted earlier this month. Filling the stage at Kennedy Theatre was a kinetic tableau danced by a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-everything mélange of performers in flashy iterations of sporty attire. The look was so diverse it would have made one of those United Colors of Benetton ads seem drab by comparison. Not settling for looks alone, however, the dancers pumped up the diversity with peripatetic bursts of action, peeling off into different-sized scrums, reconfiguring here and there. Quartets split into duos and vice versa. The kaleidoscopic troupe members somehow cohered, bound together by the necessity to make the same split-second decisions about merging—or not—with other bodies. Much like a big crowd on a city street, the pulse of movement came from group energy; there were no discernible principle dancers, no easy-to-spot chorus in the background. In one singular moment a solo dancer commanded our attention with the unfurling of a magnificent arabesque, but she was quickly absorbed into a swirl of give-and-take with other dancers—some with evident disabilities, including two wheelchair users.
It might be said that the audience should have known to expect this unexpected scene. The advance press for INTEGRAL BODIES characterized the production as “a promotion of inclusive dance-making… an embrace of all kinds of bodies in performance.” Furthermore, the local coconut wireless was abuzz with news that preparations for the piece indicated a grand jete away from the status quo of dance concert performance. Duly noted was that Alito Alessi, world-renowned for his mission of making dance the common language of all bodies—regardless of any imposed label of able-bodied or disabled—had been invited to play a Svengali-like role in INTEGRAL BODIES by introducing the cast to his transformative teachings of DanceAbility Method.
Moreover, in November 2018, prior to Alessi’s arrival, word went out that the audition for INTEGRAL BODIES would be open not just to UH dance and theatre students but to movers and shakers from the broader campus and non-campus communities This meant that the final cut—47 strong-- included both accomplished dancers and actors with rigorous formal training as well as newbies who had mounted a stage only in their dreams that had long been deferred by their respective bodily limitations.
Overall, this iconoclastic approach bears the intrepid esprit of the show’s director-choreographer Peiling Kao, also a professor in the UH dance and theatre department, who holds scholarly cred for conducting research into the field of “mixed ability dance.” Never heard that term before? Kao and colleagues talked to numerous media outlets in advance of the show and gave a heads up that it would depart from the prevailing notion that the dance concert stage is a pedestal reserved only for bodily perfection.
Nonetheless, even with all this backstory in mind, INTEGRAL BODIES unpacks some rabble-rousing surprises. It grabs a hold of inclusiveness in dance—not just as a theme for a neat representational narrative—but as a provocation which prompts the audience to wonder-- what is going on here? And what does this say about me, my dance, my body?
Without any break (the work is one continuous piece with no discreet numbers), the opening segment morphs from a celebratory showcase to a medium-light satire lampooning the image of the ideal dancer’s body. Whose ideal is that anyway? This has long been more than a philosophical question for professional dancers who run headlong into rampant discrimination traceable to a Eurocentric preferences for Western European DNA or rooted in the dance industry’s fashionable fetish for unhealthily thin and eternally youthful physiques. This exclusionary underbelly of vaunted stage glamour gets a drubbing as cast-members in INTEGRAL BODIES take turns marching forward to the footlights and announce: “A dancer is (x),” filling in the blank with a stereotype all too familiar, not only in dance but in the current barrage of mass media images of cute and cool body types that flood our senses relentlessly.
You might be wondering--dancers with dialogue? Surprise again! While it may be expected to add expository clarity, the dialogue in INTEGRAL BODIES, crafted and directed by UH creative media professor Markus Wessendorf, heaps more provocative connotations onto the theme of inclusiveness. In one especially emotionally wrenching scene, a handful of cast members lounge around a table-- talking story. It is normal enough for a moment but the dialogue quickly devolves into simultaneous monologues, each one revealing a painful personal clash with a society that too narrowly defines what is normal, acceptable, and exemplary—not just on stage but in real life. What begins as random bits of anecdotal conversation ends up conjuring the punishing sense of isolation where each speaker dwells.
One character recounts the adolescent self-loathing that prompted her compulsion to cut herself. Another young woman obsesses with outsized dread over the uncertain fate of a sibling who may need knee surgery. Two performers—both of Asian extraction, square off in an argument over their respective skin tones: dark connotes inferiority of an outdoor laborer, says one; light signals superiority of the upper class basking in indoor leisure, claims the other. The fact that both were born decades after these barbs of bigotry played out for real amongst competing groups of immigrants during Hawai`i’s plantation era underscores the lasting pain of internalized oppression handed down over generations. The net effect of the spoken words is one of immobilizing self-deception. It is also a counterpoint to the fully vigorous movements of the performers, suggesting perhaps that only the body does not lie.
To a great extent, INTEGRAL BODIES can be appreciated as a potent reminder that inclusion is sorely missing not only from the concert stage but also from the geopolitical stage where the swelling numbers of impoverished minorities and refugees are targeted for their differences and punished with exclusionary policies. But the production is, after all a dance concert—a work of art not confined to didacticism. As such, it rises above a mere polemic by presenting the human body in its many splendored paradoxes, as the primal seat of pain and pleasure, suffering and joy, the one common denominator of all humanity which cannot be denied, and, therefore, the one thing with potential to unite us all-- if we only give play to what all bodies yearn to do—express what only the body can--- in dance.
Perhaps in the spirit of paradox, it happens that as much as INTEGRAL BODIES interrogates the constraints and conventions of Western concert dance, it also includes the tradition. This is the essence of a section featuring dancers who are at the top of their game in the refined glory of formal training. They slink across the stage with exquisite synchronicity, and yet their outstretched limbs offset the mesmerizing spectacle with a sense of yearning to surpass mortal limits. Is this a picture of hubris? Maybe, but it is also forgivable, because hubris is part of the human condition, and dance—at least when performed by integral bodies--- recognizes and accepts this condition.
INTEGRAL BODIES—the production--offers more questions than answers. For anyone expecting a neatly wrapped story, it gets messy on the edges. For anyone open to something more candid, it has a magnanimous core which pulls at the gut like the family that will always love you--- no matter what.
This sense of acceptance is amplified in a culminating procession which reprises the celebratory opening. There are the same simultaneous collaborations between able-bodied and disabled dancers—though with some notable additions. Dancers on both sides of that divisive “d” diagnosis reach across and touch one anotherʻs others’ bodies as a fundamental dynamic of the choreography. There are confluent exchanges of hand-holding, bear hugs and a creative intertwining of limbs and reciprocal trade-offs of supporting the body weight of other bodies in different poses. It is polished yet idiosyncratic, as if the dancers had a role in creating it themselves. In fact, they did, as they were encouraged to drop pretense and explore movement according to the principles of DanceAbility instilled in them by guest choreographer Alito Alessi and director Peiling Kao.
This ending scene was one final loving affirmation of the universality of dance, unbound by judgement and reintegrated back into every body and everyday life where our ancestors knew it belonged. Really, who among us is not descended from peoples who danced at weddings, at burials, at seasonal harvests, at sunrises and at sunsets, because these are the cycles that speak through the body, and the body knows them as inseparable from its own cycles.
INTEGRAL BODIES offers a plethora of different messages, but they all coalesce around the simple statement that inclusiveness is good for the mind, body and spirit. The quadriplegic daughter of my friend agreed. I ran into the girl and her mom outside Kennedy Theatre after the performance. My friend leaned over and translated what her daughter had just communicated via an assistive technology device: “She says this was good, dance is good, she recognized a boy from her special ed program up on stage, and that is good!”
A lei was draped over the hand of the daughter, meant for the boy when he exited Kennedy Theatre. We waited with the large crowd and met up with the boy’s parents, jubilant at their son’s stage debut. This was the first time the boy’s parents had been to a dance concert Likewise for my friend and her daughter. So this is yet another thing about INTEGRAL BODIES—it was an inclusive experience for the audience, embracing not only all bodies but the social body of `ōhana, something that in Hawai`i is synonymous with good.
Written by Liza Simon-Tuiolosega.