#Fun4thedisabled talks to integrated dance company Momenta about their mission to include wheelchair users in their professional dance performances, and how participating in the art form is empowering for these disabled dancers.
Fun4thedisabled: In this week’s video, we discover Momenta, an integrated dance organization that includes disabled and able-bodied professional dancers. Stephanie Clemens, one of the founders, talked about how Momenta was formed.
Stephanie Clemens: Momenta began in 1983. And it was founded by Larry, Ipple, Jim Tenuta and me, and we just wanted an outlet for doing our own choreography. But Larry Ipple had taught with me for 10 years, and he is the one who helped me open the door to children initially, who had disabilities. Larry said, “Why don’t we celebrate the accessibility of our building by making a piece for dancers who use wheelchairs?” And the two dancers that are here with me, Ginger, and Kris were the first people that Larry invited to perform. Oh, gosh, Everybody Can Dance began about 12 years ago, It first started as Dancing on Wheels. We had kids come with skateboards and wheelchairs and, and any kind of wheels that they felt they wanted to bring. That got to be a little wild.
Fun4theDisabled: So can you tell me some of the more notable moments of Everybody Can Dance and also Momenta?
Stephanie Clemens: We worked with a composer named Illya Levinson. Illya was a composer from I think the University of Chicago is where he’s based. And he created the score for us. And I remember him saying that watching the dancers on wheels was like watching ice skaters. Then another high point was a piece that Kris was in that Larry created, that was a memorial to 911, and I have trouble talking about it. But Kris did a wonderful job in that we had a very wonderful painting by the artist Bruno Soto, that was projected as a background to what we were doing. And Larry took images from the painting and he made them come alive on the stage. So that was very memorable. And I think that it put Kris into the midst of all of our able-bodied dancers and a regular piece as a dancer, rather than making a piece that was just for somebody who had a disability. One of the other most memorable pieces for me was a piece called Ashes where we really decided to torment Kris. You take a Roman bench like the ones they use in gym and you make it eight feet tall, and you strap him down and compress him with rigging shorts and a mouse trap on his hips. And hang him so that the front of his body is hanging off the end upside down. And then ask him to lift a woman who weighs about 130 pounds for nine minutes upside down. It was one of the most beautiful and powerful pieces we’ve ever done.
Fun4thedisabled: What cool things are on the horizon for 2019?
Stephanie Clemens: Well, for I can I can talk about 2019 very openly and easily now because that’s really just about planned for sure. We’re going to be back with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities with the workshop of a day and a half, I think the second weekend in April. Then we’re back at the Center on Halsted September 7 and 8th for another Counterbalance performance. So we have to begin to create repertory for that concert. A lot of people say, “Well, just come and do a dance”. They don’t realize it’s hours and hours and hours of rehearsal and creativity and coming up with ideas and movement.
Fun4thedisabled: Ginger Lane has been dancing since childhood. She became a wheelchair dancer in 1984. Shortly after that she collaborated with the Joffrey Ballet.
Ginger Lane: Back in the late 1990s, the Joffrey Ballet,was just moving from New York to Chicago, and we did a benefit performance for Access Living. So I had the privilege of being able to dance with Joffrey dancers. A new piece was commissioned and created for that benefit. Which was a real highlight, because the artistic director Jerry Arpino, wanted to explore what were possibilities in Chicago. And from that performance, we actually did a performance at Ravinia following the benefit that we did for Access Living. Jerry did a question and answer session after the performance and it was talking about the fact that everybody can dance. So one young man raises his hand who had cerebral palsy. And he said, “Well, can I come and audtion?” Which kind of put Jerry Arpino on the spot. And he said, “Absolutely! you come and audition.” And for about eight or 10 years, Arpino had a young person in a wheelchair as part of the Nutcracker every year for about 10 years.
Fun4thedisabled: In 2000, Ginger Lane was named one of 100 Women Making a Difference in Today’s Chicago Woman magazine. Since 2008, Ginger has served as coordinator of the arts and cultural project at Access. Living. Ginger is a 2017 3 arts Community awardee for her dance prowess.
Ginger Lane: One of the highlights of this past year was that I had been to Israel and and I met a dance troupe in Israel, that was also a physically integrated group. And I asked them if they would like to collaborate on a piece. So we did. So we had that company on video. And we had our dancers on stage live in front of the screen. And the piece was called Community. So it was a wonderful collaboration of a company 6000 miles away and company. Here. We’re working together. I have put out some feelers to see if we can continue that kind of partnership. So maybe, maybe for next year,we can create something with the two companies again.
Fun4thedisabled: Ginger talks about what she was trying to convey in one of the dances that she choreographed.
Ginger Lane: We worked together the entire time. But at the end, as we are moving up stage, there’s almost a lifting and moving up into the sky or the heaven and you can read into that whatever you want. So harmony is perhaps a very good interpretation. And if that’s what you came away with, I’m glad.
Fun4thedisabled: Ginger, Kris and Stephanie talked about the differences between traditional dance and integrated dance.
Kris Lenzo: With integrated dance, the work between the choreographers, dancers is more collaborative than it is with traditional dance where you don’t have dancers with disabilities. So I think it’s like just communicating and observing and seeing what someone does. A lot of times, what happens is, a choreographer will say,I want you to go from here to there, you know, he me, show me how you might do it. And then have them do it three or four different ways. The choreographer will say, okay, the second way, I want you to do it that way, or they might take the second way and say, okay, when you do that, add this to it or hold your hand differently, they might tweak the movement a little bit, but there’s more teamwork. Typically, the integrated dance is relatively new. There’s not like hundreds of years of repertory of dance that you can draw from. And when you say he’s a wheelchair dancer, she’s a wheelchair dancer, or dancer with a disability there are differences. Even though Gingers is a wheelchair dancer and I am a wheelchair dancer, we have totally different bodies and shapes and movement patterns and abilities. And so it’s like, it’s not like an identical piece that you could plug in and say, This is the wheelchair dancers role.
Stephanie Clemens: Every piece I’ve seen here of the physically integrated has started with the individual dancers and what they can do, and you have to start with the idea of what they can do, not what they can’t do.
Fun4thedisabled: Kris Lenzo is a monster wheelchair dancer. Prior to becoming a dancer. He was a national champion, in both wheelchair basketball and track several times for the US team. Kris talked about how he feels about dancing and what he does to prepare for a performance. Kris, I saw you dance in Radioactive and River this year. And Clocks. Your agility strength and grace is incredible.
What do you feel like when you were dancing?
Kris Lenzo: Well, when it goes well, when it’s over, I feel like that’s it. That’s it. That’s already done. And if it’s not going that well, I worry about screwing it up and it’s more of a struggle. But the idea is to rehearse it, get the movement in your body, really feel it and know it, then do it from muscle memory. And I always say that dancing is doing things that are often very difficult and making them look effortless.
Fun4thedisabled: So what do you do to keep in shape?
Kris Lenzo: Well, I do Pilates and Yoga kind of helps me with flexibility and injury prevention and then I do different resistance exercises like weight-lifting or calisthenics. Most of the time, the nice weather part of the year, I ride my bike a fair amount and when it’s in the wintertime when I’m not riding outside, I have an exercise bike that I ride and that’s kind of general conditioning and aerobic fitness, and then rehearsing most of the year.
Fun4thedisabled: Ginger sums up the benefits of being a part of an inclusive dance troupe like Momenta.
Ginger Lane: It’s also a sense of independence and empowerment that I think comes from being able to you love to do. And getting fulfillment from it. But also being a part of the larger world. Disability so often isolates people from the larger society. For dance, It’s not always easy to find a community that is accepting.
Fun4thedisabled: It was my pleasure to have a wonderful conversation with Stephanie Clemens, Ginger Lane and Kris Lenzo of Momenta.
For more information check out their website at https://www.momentadances.org .
Everybody Can Dance is an integrated movement workshop held every third Sunday for both people with a disability and for people with no disability. It is held at the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park, Illinois.
Well, that concludes this edition of #fun4thedisabled! Next week, we’ll be covering a company that provides engineering and construction services for the disabled.
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PS, A Special Shout out to Mike Dutka of Momenta and Patrick Dahl of the Banner Collective for their magical help!