Who doesn’t love mermaids?
Half woman, half fish, these mythical beings appear in Disney’s Peter Pan swimming happily and gracefully in ways that we mere humans cannot. Yet, three of the dancers in Full Radius Dance’s performance Friday at 7 Stages approximated their playful, lyrical beauty as well as any humans could.
Julianna Feracota, Courtney Michelle McClendon and Ashlee Jo Ramsey-Borunov performed “The Mermaids’ Lagoon” on the floor, as if they too had fish tails instead of legs. It was cleverly choreographed and beautifully danced. But it was more than that.
Full Radius Dance is a physically integrated company, meaning an ensemble comprising movement artists with and without disabilities. The three other performers on Friday — Sonya Rio-Glick, Matthew Smith and Peter L. Trojic — are disabled and performed in their wheelchairs. Two of them have cerebral palsy. Like the mermaids, they didn’t stand or walk (with one stunning exception, which I’ll get to later.)
So it was a stroke of brilliance that the company’s artistic/executive director and choreographer Douglas Scott, in collaboration with the dancers, created this mermaid trio — in which standing and walking weren’t necessary — for three who could do both.
We don’t judge or shun mermaids for their inability to walk, but too often people with disabilities are feared, misunderstood or both. This was just one of the teaching moments in Alice, Peter, and Dorothy, a new work that looks at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter and Wendy (the source book for Peter Pan) through a disability lens.
The company performed five excerpts from this work-in-progress on Friday. (It will be interesting to see in the future how they deal with Peter Pan‘s Captain Hook.)
For many years, Scott was adamant that Full Radius was first and foremost a dance ensemble, not an activist vehicle for people with disabilities. But the work we saw and heard at this performance, and Scott’s comments in a recent ArtsATL interview, show that he has changed his mind.
In Alice, Peter, and Dorothy, the first work on the program, Scott told us about the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a voiceover narration. Lewis Carroll, he explained, had one shoulder higher than the other, some facial deformities, “was deaf in his right ear, blind in his right eye, and walked with a jerky gait.” It’s not how we think of Carroll, when we imagine chasing down the rabbit hole with Alice and meeting the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter.
Ah yes, the Mad Hatter. Hat-making in the 19th century, Scott told us, involved the use of mercury, causing neurological damage such as slurred speech and memory loss. Hence Carroll’s Mad Hatter. Another disability.
Full Radius also reminded us that witches have power, and that power can be used for both evil and good. In “The Witches of Oz” section, Rio-Glick, who like the other disabled performers had been “dancing” by propelling her chair in smooth circles and quarter turns, suddenly stood up. It was a totally unexpected, powerful moment that took one’s breath away.
She then haltingly walked forward a couple of steps for a brief floor duet with an able-bodied dancer, again challenging the audience’s expectations.
During his formative years, L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, experienced soldiers returning from the Civil War. Injured and with amputated limbs, they were often banned from public gatherings. Scott dealt with this shameful history by telling us about it, then delivering the opposite in movement. In the “Maps of Fantasy” chapter, he arranged five of the dancers at one side of the stage. They looked into the wings, as if waiting for their loved ones. The sixth dancer entered (perhaps as an injured soldier?) and fell into the embrace of Trojic in his wheelchair. It was a tender moment, and one of many examples of Scott’s light touch.
Alice, Peter, and Dorothy opened with all six dancers clad in bright blue tops, their backs to the audience. Each moved one arm lyrically, like a wing or an ocean wave, in unison with the others. It was unison sections like this that emphasized integration throughout the evening and were lovely to watch.
Undercurrents, the second work on the program and a premiere, featured many such moments as well as duets for one able-bodied dancer and one chair performer. Undercurrents also included tableau created by one or more dancers holding onto, standing on or leaning against another performer’s chair. At times the disabled performers tipped their chairs sideways onto one wheel, as another dancer held them in place. Trojic looked ill at ease in these off-balance positions, but he was firmly supported by McClendon.
Undercurrents encompassed tender embraces as well as dynamic, expansive movement phrases and duets, all of which the able-bodied dancers, Feracota especially, performed with strength and precision. They were enhanced by Gregory Catellier’s nuanced lighting design, which gave everything a warm glow.
Full Radius Dance, now in its 33rd year, encourages audiences to embrace “the other” without fear or judgment and hopefully to see and appreciate the artistry these performers create together.
And while the pendulum has perhaps swung too far in the activist direction (the narration felt too didactic at times), Full Radius Dance embodies a powerful message of acceptance and unity that our fractured, divisive world sorely needs.
Gillian Anne Renault has been an ArtsATL contributor since 2012 and was named Senior Editor for Art+Design and Dance in 2021. She has covered dance for the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and Ballet News, and was dance critic on radio stations such as KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, California. In the 1980s, she received an NEA Fellowship to attend American Dance Festival’s Dance Criticism program.