A Day in the Life: Karen Peterson and “Body without Text”

by Karen Peterson

Katrina Weaver, a dancer in Miami’s Karen Peterson and Dancers company, and I participated in a five-day dance workshop for individuals with and without disabilities in Belgrade, Serbia. I was the instructor of the inclusive movement classes and director of the final performance along with my Serbian colleagues, Boris Caksiran, the artistic director and Marko Pejovic, the managing director of Grupa “Hajde de” (group Let’s). This organization has a solid twelve-year history of inclusive arts and community social programs and serves a wide range of marginalized groups in the Balkans through hands on workshops and performance. They first brought inclusive dance to Belgrade in 2008 when London’s Canduco Company introduced equal rights in the dance studio.

Twenty six individuals, eight with documented disabilities, came from Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia came to participate in the workshop. Therapists, teachers, disability activists, students and dancers were among the participants. Many travelled six to seven hours by train or van to learn about mixed-ability dance in order to take information back to their home countries to start new groups or develop existing programs. Despite the past histories of these countries, the dance group moved seamlessly with cooperation and collaboration.

Many participants had years of dance education; others had little. However, everyone came with the curiosity of movement and the need to share and process. Self discovery was on everyone’s mind and all were encouraged to do their best and be engaged and committed to the creative process. We worked 10am – 5pm every day and dealt with movement improvisation tasks that were solved in solo, in duet or group form. Trust, honesty, challenge, understanding, patience, courage and dialogue were a few of the words that came up for discussion.  We created a safe space for communication and overcame barriers by showing what we could do by working intimately with each other.

A final structure was developed for the end performance by Boris, Marko and I. “Body without Text” looks at the labels, definitions and prejudices one places on a person before knowing the individual.  The final 35 minute performance with projections, new music and dance dealt with those many ideas.

There were eight participants with documented disabilities in the workshop (two blind, two deaf, two wheelchair users, two developmental disabilities). We were able to make a final structure for the performance where everyone participated equally. One hundred and twenty-five audience members came out to watch the performance at the Cultural Institution “Vuk Karadzic” theatre and audience members eagerly directed questions to the dancers after the showing.  New audiences experienced the joy of a diverse group moving harmoniously on stage while others cheered their favorite dance artist with audible applauds or the signing for clapping hands.

I would like to thank the sign language interpreters and the English to Serbian translators who were present for every class and rehearsal.

I would like to thank Miami Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Exchange Grant from APAP for their support in making Miami / Belgrade Dance Exchange possible. In many ways, lives were changed and new possibilities discovered.

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Karen Peterson is the Artistic Director of Miami’s Karen Peterson and Dancers, which was established in 1990. The group presents choreography created by dance artists with and without disabilities. The dancers collaborate, research, and integrate their personal movement styles and through improvisation discover an innovative dance language. The troupe acts as a positive role model for the disability community, offers new visual inspiration for traditional dance audiences, and provides the benefits of movement to children with disabilities. Learn more at karenpetersondancers.org.

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