Miami’s third Forward Motion Festival returns with a message of inclusivity

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There’s a renewed interest in physically integrated dance, according to Karen Peterson.

The artistic director of Karen Peterson and Dancers sees it as a consequence of recent social movements: “After the social upheaval of this past year, and with diversity, equity and inclusion on the minds of most everyone today, there is more focus on PI (physically integrated) dance than before.”

Good thing, then, that the event she founded – the Forward Motion Dance Festival – is able to return this year after being canceled in 2020.

From Sept. 22-25, the third edition of the festival will showcase the nation’s top PI dance companies, including Peterson’s company, KPD, as well as Oakland-based AXIS Dance Co., Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels Co. and Tampa’s REVolutions Dance. Performances, workshops and lectures on PI dance techniques will take place at Miami Dade College’s Koubek Center and the Miami-Dade County Auditorium.

Uniting disabled and non-disabled performers onstage, the festival is meant to challenge conventional notions of dance.

“What is KPD’s value to the community? Everyone loves our work, but still many do not enjoy wheelchairs moving onstage. Does KPD have artistic integrity? How do we measure pointe work to wheelchair balances? How does one look at a trained ballerina and compare the individual to a wheelchair dancer? Are they apples and oranges?” Peterson says. “Many of these questions have different answers, but PI dance certainly pushes the envelope about who can and cannot dance.”

For Mary Verdi-Fletcher, artistic director of Dancing Wheels, the artform of PI dance goes hand in hand with advocacy work for expanding opportunities and safeguarding the rights of the disabled.

“Not all the performances are geared toward a social message, but by the inclusivity of the company the message is there, because the inclusivity speaks to it. The performance is in that way educational for the audience,” Verdi-Fletcher says. “I was born with my disability, and there weren’t opportunities for people to participate in the arts other than being a viewer or audience member. But then I started dancing, including social dancing. This was in the disco days, and what I was doing actually caught on like wildfire. I was in a competition that was nationally televised and people wanted to see us perform.”

Her company, Dancing Wheels, employs 11 dancers and celebrated its 40th anniversary in June. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had a robust national and international tour schedule and offered master classes, concerts and lectures.

At the Forward Motion Festival, Dancing Wheels will present the Miami premieres of two works: “Pallas Athena” and “Odyssey.”

“Pallas Athena” includes nine dancers (two disabled and seven non-disabled). Featuring the music of David Bowie, the concert work was choreographed by the rehearsal director of Dancing Wheels, Catherine Meredith.

The second piece, “Odyssey,” showcases nine dancers (three disabled and six non-disabled) and was created by choreographer Marc Brew, who is the artistic director of AXIS Dance Co.

“I had commissioned [Brew] along with two other disabled choreographers for a show that featured disabled choreographers. There are not a lot of disabled choreographers,” noted Verdi-Fletcher.

Brew’s interest in choreography began when he was an 11-year-old dance student in Australia. He began his career as a professional ballet dancer, but a car accident in South Africa left him paralyzed from the chest down. Brew went on to work with New York dancer Kitty Lunn, a disability activist and founder of Infinity Dance Theater, to translate classical techniques into the upper body.

Brew frequently focuses on the concept of restriction in his choreographies:When I first started using my chair, people would say I’m wheelchair-bound. However, this is not what I mean by this. By working with restriction, I mean exploring floorwork and partnering and contact improvisation by restricting space and setting up guidelines and structures that present an opportunity for the dancers to solve a problem.”

In addition to contributing “Pallas Athena,” he choreographed the KPD solo, “Remember When,” featuring wheelchair dancer Jesus Vidal de Leon, who once studied with Brew during an AXIS Dance Co. summer session. Brew will also conduct a workshop and lecture during the festival.

For Brew, the greatest obstacle to appreciating PI dance is often the preoccupation with the disability of the dancers.

“People need to get over looking out for the disability of a dancer during a performance and identifying who’s disabled and who’s not,” Brew says. “Look for the artistry of their performance, their awesomeness. Look for how they join together their diversity of shapes, sizes, genders. Take in and absorb being moved.

“I want audiences to be moved – not just emotionally, but with lots of questions and images in their minds, and have them take something away from that moment.”

If you go

WHAT: Forward Motion Festival 2021

WHEN: Sept. 22-25, 2021

WHERE: Miami Dade College’s Koubek Center, 2705 SW Third St., and Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St.

ADMISSION: There will be free events, as well as $10 workshops. Admission for the main performances are $25 for the general public and $18 for students and seniors age 65 and older.

SAFETY PROTOCOLS: The venues will follow federal, state and local public health regulations and guidance related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Face coverings are “strongly encouraged” at the Koubek Center and required at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, according to the website.

INFORMATION: ForwardMotionMiami.com or 786-498-6756

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