Heidi Latsky Demystifies Disability, Redefines Diversity

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Heidi Latsky Dance in Somewhere at Brooklyn Bridge ParkPhoto by Paul Galando

Heidi Latsky Dance in Somewhere at Brooklyn Bridge Park
Photo by Paul Galando

“Keep looking at me and I might just do a trick.”

Sounds like a t-shirt waiting to happen, right? Well, it has already been done. But for roughly 19 percent of the United States population, this is more than just a witty catch line. It is a pointed acknowledgement of a perpetual struggle for social, professional, and even personal acceptance.

Twenty-five years ago this July, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law and nationwide efforts began to ensure accessibility, safety, and a more equal existence for citizens diagnosed as having “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Both in celebration of this milestone legislation and with the intention to raise awareness around the perceptual hurdles the U.S. still faces in its understanding of disability, Heidi Latsky Dance (HLD) partnered with the mayor’s office on a series of public performance art installations staged throughout New York City over the course of the summer. These events culminate with an engagement at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium this Thursday, as well as a shared program featuring HLD and AXIS Dance Company — a California-based troupe of artists both with and without disabilities — at New York University’s Skirball Center on November 15.

{Dd} recently caught up with HLD artistic director Heidi Latsky.

Leah Gerstenlauer, {Dd}: What sparked your interest in confronting the issue of how we, as a society, perceive disability?

Heidi Latsky: I’d actually never really had any experience with people with disabilities when I started dancing at 20. I kind of fell into it. At the time, I had a very conventional sense of what dance was and what a dancer was. I was always going for that ideal body and that ideal technique, but I was struggling because I was older. Then to be put into [Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company], where there were varying technical levels, really different bodies on stage — it was kind of that experience that turned me around to see how dance has the power to make political statements or can have humanity to it. It can be multileveled in a way that really spoke to me.

When I started my own company, a very good friend of mine introduced me to Lisa, an artist who was a bilateral amputee. She had gotten a grant and she wanted me to help her make a solo. Working with her was my big shift because she truly became my muse. I was always one of those choreographers who was really interested in seeing the whole person as a performer. I wanted to see people’s vulnerability and also their fierceness; people who weren’t afraid to take a risk, go the distance. A lot of that is trained out of dancers. We get stuck in what we look like, what our technical level is, and what we have achieved. We forget who we are and what we can do as people and as a personal expression through our bodies.

LG: So, this isn’t your first exploration of dance and disability. What has been the lead-up to this venture?

HL: Working with Lisa was, like, whoa! This woman was outrageously talented and gorgeous to watch. She just rocked my world. That’s how it started. I made a 25-minute solo for her, and then I thought I could start to work with other people with unexpected bodies. That led to Gimp in 2006, and I really haven’t looked back. That work features both disabled and non-disabled performers, so it’s not just about disability; it’s about really extreme bodies.

Heidi Latsky Dance in On Display at Times SquarePhoto by Darial Sneed

Heidi Latsky Dance in On Display at Times Square
Photo by Darial Sneed

LG: Gimp is a pretty provocative title. What was the inspiration?

HL: One of my original Gimp dancers used to wear these t-shirts that said things like, “Keep looking at me and I might just do a trick” — things that were provocative. And then he wore a shirt that said “Gimp” and I asked, “What are you wearing that for?” because I knew it as a derogatory word. And he said, “It’s like a preemptive strike. I’m saying, ‘I know you’re looking at me because I have cerebral palsy and I’m walking differently than you. So I’m acknowledging that you’re going to look at me and that it’s okay.’ Because I know that I walk kind of weird.” He said that what’s so unfortunate is that a lot of kids might look at him, but the parents make it difficult by saying, “Don’t stare. Don’t look. It’s not polite.” And that’s how it starts, when kids are that young and they’re curious. The dancer with cerebral palsy’s point was, “Well, why not? I’ll talk to them about it. I would engage with a kid and explain why I walk the way I do.” Not that you want to outright stare at anybody, but it is in our culture that we’re not allowed to have that curiosity.

And on the other hand, there is a sense of not wanting to invade people’s privacy. I’ve seen that a lot with disabilities, where people are very inappropriately intrusive. So, there’s that fine line between looking and not looking, asking questions and not being disrespectful of someone’s privacy.

LG: In a way, the work you did with the mayor’s office over the summer was an attempt to temporarily remove that line, an invitation for people to really look and think about extremes. We’re not often given the opportunity to do that.

HL: No, we’re not. I’m reading this book about the act of staring and how it’s actually a normal neurological experience when the brain recognizes something as really different. Like, you know how some people walk on their toes? They bounce. They’re not disabled, but someone walking through the crowd bouncing will draw your eye because it’s unusual. Our brains are geared towards looking at that to make sense of it because it’s different from what we’re used to seeing. It’s just what we do. But because of social norms, we’re taught not to do it.

For the last few years, I’ve been dying to do something that’s free and public, something that people would “happen” on, because I feel like it’s the best way to expose people to disability and dance. So we did these sculpture courts [in Manhattan] on the Highline, at Times Square, in Brooklyn Bridge Park…. I did a wheelchair athlete event and a dance flash mob as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. It’s been extremely exciting, very fulfilling, and fun.

One of the more beautiful experiences happened during a sculpture garden performance in Times Square. We were on a jumbotron for three minutes every hour, and I had people with disabilities doing virtuosic stuff. I was wandering around and watching the dancers, watching the people watching them. Some people walked through, some people asked questions. Then I saw this one woman crying and I started talking to her. She was from Maine, and she and her husband had been watching for about an hour. She said it was one of the most beautiful things she’d seen since she’d been in the city. She was so moved. That was a highlight. Of course, just as many people would walk by and think we were doing yoga or tai chi.

LG: How do those experiences relate to the more formal performances you have planned for the Atrium and Skirball?

HL: These are not exactly dance performances. The piece On Display is really a movement installation. I’ve been thinking of it as a deconstructed fashion show or art museum exhibit. The dancers are moving sculptures on a spot, basically. They have to be able to be still for long periods of time, to get into the Zen of it. It’s probably really difficult for some dancers because they’re not dancing. They’re moving very little. The main thing I’m noticing is that it’s a focus issue. My dancers are used to this, but it does take them a while to get into the rhythm of it and allow themselves to be so simple, to not embellish, to go inside more. The whole premise for me — and I don’t know if it’s going to work because I haven’t done it in a more formal situation — is the objectification of people, the way we define people by how they look. Hopefully, we’ll give insight into each person so they can be seen for who they really are, not what they look like.

Heidi Latsky Dance at the WhitneyPhoto by Darial Sneed

Heidi Latsky Dance at the Whitney
Photo by Darial Sneed

LG: This may be too much of a generalization, but I imagine that your most skeptical audience will be the dance community. I mean, as you said, dancers and dance-makers can get pretty caught up in appearance.

HL: The dance world — even in New York City, which is surprising — has historically been remarkably closed to this kind of work. But I think that’s changing now, especially because Dance/NYC is really pushing dance and disability. I’m on a task force for people with disabilities who are involved in the dance world and we’re researching what’s out there for them. Not a lot of things exist right now, but the fact that Dance/NYC has a three-year initiative is huge. It’s huge for people who, like me, are very interested in dance and disability. …

Even just the work I’ve gotten this year has been incredible. Major venues like Skirball are embracing us. It’s fantastic. And I’m so thrilled to be sharing an evening with AXIS, which is a renowned physically integrated company that has been around for many, many, many years. I think we’re making a breakthrough here.

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