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Disability Fosters Innovation on the Stage

Telory W. Davies
Department of Drama
Stanford University
June 2002


My dissertation is part of an emerging interdisciplinary field of disability studies that tries to explain disability as a cultural rather than solely medical phenomenon. My work moves disability out of the hospital and onto the stage. I propose disability experience as grounds for a new kind of American performance that redefines art and ability.

Just as the Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and Gay Rights movements in America changed representations of blacks, women, and homosexuals, the Disability Rights movement has opened representational doors to people with disabilities. I discuss five American artists/companies that change perceptions of disability and illness by creating new images and dialogues about what it means to be disabled. Their material ranges from wheelchair dance to autistic picture-language. With interviews and performance analysis, I explore the artists' goals and the performers' experiences.

Let me start by defining the term "disability." The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that limits an individual's major life activities in substantial ways. This limitation may be due to actual inability, social discrimination, lack of public access, or all of the above. Disability performance knocks down physical and social barriers through equal opportunity and creative innovation.

How can dance and theater represent disability as a new difference on America's stages without marking this difference as a lack or deficiency? Can we see a person in a wheelchair as a dancer? Why does an actor who has lost a limb offer insights on contemporary fragmented lifestyles? Disabled bodies force us to ask ourselves what is normal and why. Whereas most people are used to seeing disabled individuals in nursing homes or hospitals, the artists I study put disability on stage.

Choreographer Bill T. Jones's 1994 piece, "Still/Here," represents individuals disabled by cancer, AIDS, and other life-threatening diseases; he presents his interviewees as survivors rather than victims, choreographing their physical difficulties and remembering their fight for life.

California's AXIS Dance Company commissioned choreographers Bill T. Jones and Stephen Petronio to choreograph for their mixed-ability dancers. Jones's "Fantasy in C Major" (2000) and Petronio's "Secret Ponies" (2001) invite spectators to look with a difference, changing conventional notions of the body: its limits, its capabilities, and its borders.

Cherrie Moraga's play, "Heroes and Saints," crosses borders to approach the impossible possible: her central female character is a head with no body. The (im)possibility of claiming a legitimate body is an experience common to people with disabilities and women of color. For Chicanas, mourning the phantom limbs of a fragmented homeland may not prove as useful as redefining the social body.

Actor/director Joseph Chaikin initiated his 2001 project, "Body Pieces," in 1992 after a stroke left him aphasic. His disabled actors' loss of limbs parallels his own loss of language. Chaikin's disabled actors expose and detach their fake legs in order to revise audience perceptions of fragmented bodies. Chaikin and his actors embrace fragmentation and redefine human wholeness.

Whereas Chaikin staged physical disability late in his career, director Robert Wilson employed cognitive disability as a guiding artistic principle early in his theater practice. He worked with an autistic performer, Christopher Knowles, whose approach to language as a spatial, pictorial, and sonic art form shaped Wilson's 1974 piece, "A Letter for Queen Victoria."

These artists present disability experiences as new perspectives that forge alternative aesthetic sensibilities. Disability is thus an impetus for artistic innovation; it expands our definitions of art, beauty, and social activism through performance. This project redefines communication,
wholeness, legitimacy, ability, and survival in ways that question mainstream assumptions about disability and the stage. Disability is performance's next frontier.