Artburst Exclusive December 8, 2010
Fulfilling one woman’s unlikely dream launched choreographer Karen Peterson into the realm of artistic expression and advocacy that has fueled her own creativity for more than two decades.
“She called me on the phone one day and said, ‘I’d like to be in a ballet,’” recalls Peterson, a Boston Conservatory graduate who was collaborating with various Miami artists at the time. The caller was Miami Beach resident Mildred Pallas Levenson, a well-known watchdog for the rights of the disabled in South Florida who had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in her 20s. In 1990, Peterson, Levenson, and another dancer appeared on stage at the New World School of the Arts.
Since that initial foray with Levenson, who died this past February at age 75, Peterson’s nonprofit company, Karen Peterson and Dancers, has mounted dozens of “mixed ability” works, which integrate professionally trained, able-bodied dancers with disabled individuals who usually have little or no prior experience. The company has performed in Italy, Bosnia, Washington, D.C., and South Florida (in the danceAble festival), among other places, as well as in Kendall, where Peterson, a 2010 Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs choreography fellowship winner, opened Excello Dance Space in 2002.
“Mixed-ability dance is also used as a healing tool,” notes Peterson, who has programs for special needs children as well. “It makes the audience open their eyes, forces them to look at something—maybe question their prejudices,” notes Peterson.
On December 11, Karen Peterson and Dancers continues its 21st season at the Byron Carlyle Theater in Miami Beach. Hoping to cast a wider net in a tough economy—Peterson notes that she’s seen her state grants cut by almost 75 percent and county grants by 25 percent this year—Peterson invited colleagues to collaborate on a multimedia event that includes mixed-ability dance, live jazz, video art, and more.
For the show’s second half she connected Miami-based modern choreographer Joanne Barrett and jazz vocalist Wendy Pedersen. “I just put them together and I let them deal with their own journey,” says Peterson. The result, “I Will Catch You,” is an after-hours-style mood ring of a piece in which the music, musicians, and dancers all become equal, interactive partners. Described by Barrett as having “kind of a loungey, seedy, we’ve-been-up-really-late-at-night kind of feel,” the hour-long work is an intimate conversation between Pedersen’s sultry arrangements and the dancers, who interact with Pedersen and her trio on stage, from a loose-limbed romp to a solo set atop a piano that’s been moved out into the house.
The show’s title piece, “Buoyant Dreams,” surfaced out of a chance encounter in Little Havana four years ago during a workshop at the now-defunct art space of choreographer Octavio Campos. It was there that Peterson met visual artist Maria Lino, a two-time Cintas Foundation Award winner.
“One of the pieces I showed,” Lino recounts, “was when my aunt was carrying her son who had cerebral palsy—he was already a grown man and she was already in her 60s… I slowed [the sequence] down to the point where you could see her muscles and you could see the strength but also the incredible effort [it took] to carry a grown man. Karen saw that piece and afterward she turned to me and said, ‘cerebral palsy, right?’ So we connected.”
“Buoyant Dreams” is their second collaboration of dance, video, and digital media. It dives into a theme Lino has been exploring for a few years: buoyancy and how water changes the body’s physical relationship to the world. Born in Cuba and raised in New York City and Miami, Lino has always lived surrounded by water.
She presented Peterson with several sections from her own footage and from there, the creative dialogue took off. Lino shot new video with Peterson’s dancers, two of whom are in wheelchairs, and Peterson developed movement that would resonate and reverberate as the dancers on stage partnered with projections of their past selves on-screen. It’s a fluid exchange inspired and informed by water.
From the chaos of a storm to the ethereal composure of a pool, water flows from screen to stage, contained in drinking cups, buckets, and ultimately spilling onto the floor. “At the end,” says Peterson, “we really use the water to create choreography that slides through the space.”
To achieve that same sense of freedom in her medium, Lino shot all of the dancers underwater, providing Peterson with an additional choreographic tool. In the piece, the audience sees dancers who are in wheelchairs on stage simultaneously gliding and floating languidly on the screen behind them. “You come to understand there is so much movement they have without the confine of the metal chair,” explains Peterson.
“This is how life came for them” adds Lino. “Their personalities can actually express themselves regardless of their physical capabilities and if you’re open to see that, there’s also beauty in the way their bodies manifest themselves.”
Karen Peterson and Dancers performs Buoyant Dreams on December 11 at 4 and 8 p.m. at the Byron Carlyle Theatre, 500 71st Street, Miami Beach. Tickets are $15 and $20; $25 VIP tickets include admission to a fundraiser/after-party at the New Hotel, within walking distance of the theater. Call 305-298-5879 or visit www.karenpetersondancers.org.
Performers are Marjorie Burnett, Ivonne Batanero Cernuda, Shawn Buller, Dia Dearstyne, Lina Ferrera, Jenny Larsson, Mariana Oliveira, Jennifer Smallwood, Katrina Weaver.