Saturday, April 19, 2008

One Breath is an Ocean for a Wooden Heart, Lisa Bufano and Sonsheree Giles

This is an article from AXIS Dance's spring newsletter. They are celebrating their 2oth anniversary this year. (Check out their $20 Dollars for Our Tweniteth Campaign. It is well worth it.)

This articel has everything to do with what I have been taking from my work with Bhanu's forthcoming Humanimal, and Alexander Technique, and the real time loop I amwrintg toward.


(Lisa Bufano joined AXIS in 2007. Her disability is the loss of both her legs below the knee as well as half of both of her hands as a result of a staff infection.)

Photos: Lisa Bufano & Sonsherée Giles, photo by Jeremy Alliger; Lisa Bufano, Jeremy Alliger Sonsherée Giles and Jerrry Smith

Last year, Suncica Ostoic of KONTEJNER, a hip Croatian art collective, invited me to perform at the Extravagant Bodies Festival that would take place in Zagreb in December 2007. The festival would be a weeklong collaborative interdisciplinary art event with performances by notorious artists like Mat Fraser and Bill Shannon. There would be symposiums with talks on the relationship between the Disability Arts Movement and the DDA in the UK; about how the use of technical prosthesis that give artists a creative advantage render the term disability obsolete; and about politics of normality and otherness. There would be film screenings of the Todd Browning classic, Freaks, and Peter Greenway's A Zed And Two Naughts. I saw a great opportunity to create something extraordinary. (Learn more about Extravagant Bodies.

With the encouragement of Judy Smith (AXIS Artistic Director) and Jeremy Alliger (long time presenter and supporter of AXIS), I recruited dancer/choreographer/costume designer/and all-around creative dynamo Sonsherée Giles to attach four 28" wooden stilts to her arms and legs and collaborate on this performance. Before long, we had Jerry Smith (visual and sound artist) composing music and building Sonsherée's stilts to match the queen Anne style table-leg stilts that Jason Karakehian (Boston sculpture) made for me in 2005.

We worked when we were not touring in October and November on the 25-minute dance we would eventually title One Breath is an Ocean for a Wooden Heart. We were starting with the requirements that there be an illusion and transformation. We did a lot of writing and played with a voice over narrative. We worked with images that we could create with our bodies on the stilts (a table and chair, a house on stilts, birds, gazelles, a spider, worms, toys, monsters). We drew from the events and relationships in our lives and found reoccurring themes (some involving a room, the beach, the water, and kite-flying). We talked about the relationship between our characters, about whether we were humans on stilts, or make-believe furniture creatures that had come to life. And, if so, was there some kind of death too?

When Sonsherée talked about the way wearing stilts made her feel detached and removed from the ground it was a pretty affirming experience for me as a prosthetic user. We realized the stilts, to some degree, equalized our physicalities. We also became conscious that the times that we were very physically close (like when we used our heads as a contact point) felt the strongest. We decided to stay physically as close as possible throughout the piece until the very end. That felt like a bit of sad ending, but it seemed right. We also decided not to stand on two legs because that seemed incongruous to the animal-like and insect-like images.

Throughout this process, Judy gave us a great amount of trust, support and feedback. We were fortunate to also win a CA$H grant and have Jeremy working with us. Alliger Arts produced this engagement/tour of 3 performances in Dubrovnik and Zagreb, Croatia and in Ljbjana, Slovenia.
Dubrovnik is a prominent tourist destination on the Adriatic Sea. We were there off-season. I was struck by its color palette: grey of stone walls surrounding the old city, bright orange of clay-tiled roofs, pale blue sky and aquamarine sea. Our host, Slaven, was a brooding artist-type committed to the Art Workshop Lazareti, the singular independent gallery and performance center he is working to make into an artist' residency. It rained the entire time we were there, except for a brief 3-hour morning of the day we left. This allowed barely enough time to walk on the city walls of the old city. The walk required a climb up a trillion stairs-not so accessible, but completely worth the effort. Dubrovnik seemed to be a serious place. Maybe it was the weather that made it somber. The old city, which was lit by x-mas lights at night, still showed destruction from the war.

Our first performance was in an intimate space. It had no lights or a real 'stage,' but there were wood floors, stonewalls, and a view of the sea. Jeremy somehow found some mobile light kits and despite a serious lack of resources, he made a light design that was really lovely. Although it was bone-chilling cold, our audience was warm and generous.

From Dubrovnik, we flew back to Zagreb and then drove to Ljubljana, Slovenia. We met our hosts, Sandra and Juri of Kapelica Gallery, and saw the next performance space that night. It was a minimal black-box style space inside a transportation museum. It was vast and airy and had large industrial pieces of machinery, gears, and pulleys about. The main problem with this space was there were no curtain or side wings, forcing us to get into place in the dark, not the best scenario when walking on stilts. I had a strong sense of Sonsherée's presence next to me. I could feel the audience being there with us, holding their breath. To our profound disappointment, Sonsherée's stilt broke about 8 minutes into the piece and she fell. I waited to see if she could get back up and continue, or maybe just improvise something on the floor. But, the stilt was in 2 pieces and sort of hanging off of Sonsherée's leg. There was really no way to continue. Although the audience and our hosts were incredibly understanding and supportive, we were pretty sad.

Jeremy and Jerry fixed the stilt the next day at Kapelica gallery space. And our moods improved with the festival’s bustle of activity. In the gallery, there was a photography exhibit with huge nude self-portraits by Alison Lapper, an artist and a mother who was born without arms and shortened legs. I went outside and stood in the rain to escape the smoke. There was a guy with a 80's new wave haircut and one arm. I think he was wearing some striped fuzzy thing on his stump. When I asked about him, I was told he was modeling something his fashion-designer sister made for him and he'd be modeling different things throughout the festival. All around me I was aware of the deformed hipsters that stood out—people who had a level of creative self-awareness that allowed for, not simply deformity as identity, but as something like fashion. I've heard disability described as an imaginative lifestyle—you're always problem solving. You're always designing contraptions and tools to be more efficient. You alter your clothes to fit your life and your body. You are aware that doing every day tasks in public can be a performance. That's true of most people with disabilities. With a deformity, there's often the additional layer of, what is sometimes, a visceral response. And, the way you decide to deal (or not) with that becomes part of the over all package you present as your self. I've always realized that artists with a deformity will have an easier time of it. It was a bit of a "one of us" moment, to be sure.

We went to see Mat Fraser's Beauty and the Beast. I had heard so much about Mat's work and I was familiar with the Ouch podcast. In the opening of the show, Mat as the Beast, is all over the stage. He's sort of heroically naked, rather than beastly. He's more of a rock star kind of beast (picture a young Iggy pop with thalidomide flippers). I was feeling a bit apprehensive that our performance wasn't going to be edgy enough for this audience. This would be a hard act to follow. At this point Sonsherée leans over and whispers facetiously "I think we need to perform topless."

The next night we performed to a full house. Jeremy, once again, stepped up and built a light design out of thin air. Since this stage also had no curtain, we would have the same problem of setting up in the dark. We came up with the solution of having Sonsherée in position on the floor while the audience entered the theater. I hid off to the side of the stage and spied on the people filing in. The performance was strong. It felt alive. I felt we had resolved a conflict. I was satisfied with the journey of work that led us to that night, and also relieved that the equipment had held together.
We had another couple days at the festival before we left. I got the opportunity to see Bill Shannon, a prolific and incredibly fluid street-style dancer/media artist who uses rocker style crutches and a skateboard. I also went to a performance by DLAN, a group of Croatian deaf theater and visual artists that took place in a swimming pool.

It had been 12 days since I left Oakland. Our work was finished, and the festival had ended. We were all exhausted and I was anxious to go back home. Before returning home, we spent some time in Vienna and Sieghartskirchen, a countryside district in Tulln in Lower Austria. It is a very special place for me, surrounded by monasteries with vineyards, shops and bakeries. We would eat good cheese and drink local wine. On the train, Sonsherée and Jerry and Jeremy drank champagne in the restaurant car. I spent about 2 hours staring at an icy rural landscape rolling by the window. I took a 6 hour nap. At one point, I woke up briefly when a group of about 5 humorless policemen stuffed themselves into our car and insisted we unscrew our wooden crate to show them that our stilts were not weapons of mass-destruction. But it all seemed less important since the work was done.

--One Breath is an Ocean for a Wooden Heart was commissioned in part by AXIS Dance Company,in association with Alliger Arts.

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