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Performers in 'GIMP' invite audience to stare

Disabled and non-disabled dancers push each other to unexpected places of beauty

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By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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The performance starts off with a joke: "So, three cripples walk into a bar," Lawrence Carter-Long says to the audience with wide eyes and a vaudevillian grin.

It's his clever way of breaking down people's shock and nervousness. His way of inviting people to stare, though he admits that not everyone is prepared for what they are about to see: disfigured dancers twirling sensuously, the jaunty whirl of the physically challenged sprinting across the stage.

It's a show called "GIMP" - a modern-dance piece featuring non-disabled professional dancers performing alongside dancers with underdeveloped or amputated limbs or other physical disabilities. A woman spins her arms, one shorter than the other, like a windmill; the tall, slim Carter-Long, who has cerebral palsy, gets tossed around like a sack of potatoes by a muscular man; a woman with no legs twirls on a rope suspended in the air; another woman with one arm writhes on her belly across the stage.

The dancers of "GIMP" present a bold look at the unexpected, a rarely observed beauty and grace, as they confront stereotypes of what people with disabilities can and cannot do. The piece shifts from solos to duets, showing off both the dancers' vulnerabilities and their strengths. "GIMP" makes its Boston premiere Friday and Saturday at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

"I wanted to go into their world and expose them," says Heidi Latsky, the dancer and choreographer who founded the Heidi Latsky Dance company. "I wanted to express who they are."

Latsky, formerly a performer with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, looked for people with disabilities for this project, and she found them through word of mouth. Then she began pushing them to move in ways they might not have thought possible. She asked them to discover within themselves the unique mobility of their torsos and limbs. She dared them to see themselves not as "limited" but as people who can make virtuosic and sensual movements that others simply cannot.

"My intention is not a political one," Latsky says by phone from New York. "My intention is to make a strong piece of dance, one that is provocative and evocative. We wanted to make the material more edgy, more sexy, so we started pushing the envelope of sexuality."

Chuckling, Latsky recalls the T-shirt that Carter-Long, who walks with his knees bent inward in a sort of offbeat stride, wore to rehearsals one day. It was a source of inspiration.

"It said: Keep staring. I just might do a trick," she recalls, laughing.

As for the professionally trained dancers, it was a challenge to learn to work with partners who moved in ways they weren't used to.

"As professional dancers we had to realize that these people are really putting themselves out there, and it takes a lot for them to do the work, so we all had to work extra hard," says Latsky, who also performs in "GIMP." "This group is really tight. We have a lot of respect for each other and what we are able to do together."

"I trust Heidi's sensibility and her fearlessness," says producer Jeremy Alliger, who founded and directed Boston's Dance Umbrella until it closed in 2001. "She dove right in there and was not afraid to wrestle what she could from the body types she was working with. She has a talent for mining authentic movements and personalities."

Latsky did her research. She learned that the word "gimp" has many definitions: a ribbonlike braided fabric, a fighting spirit, vigor, and the act of turning, vacillating, or trembling ecstatically, as well as a lame person or a halting, lame walk. The title of the show was born, and the challenge was to see whether audiences would embrace it.

"There's a lot in 'GIMP' that will be new to audiences, and I hope it makes them think, but I also hope they can take it all in. Watch it without thinking too much," she says.

So far, says Carter-Long, 42, the responses have been tremendous. The show debuted in Albuquerque last November, followed by a performance at New York's Abrons Arts Center last month. The performances surprised audiences, challenging their expectations of what dancers should look like, says Carter-Long.

"People are shocked because it's unlike anything they've ever seen," he says. "By the end, some would come up to us and say, 'I think you're so beautiful.' "

Never having danced before - particularly onstage for an audience of hundreds - Carter-Long says he was especially terrified before taking on the show. As an outspoken director of advocacy at the Disabilities Network of New York City, Carter-Long is accustomed to being in the public arena, confidently taking on policy matters, but he was not used to the vulnerability of a dance performance - of "putting it all out there," he says.

"Because it frightened me, I knew I had to do it," he says. "If I am out there saying that the disabled should be included in every aspect of life, the same has to be true for the stage. Why shouldn't it be me who does it?"

Now Carter-Long says he's more physically fit than he's ever been. He's learned to live with Epsom salts, long warm baths, and the occasional bruise here and there. After all, those rehearsals and performances can be a little brutal.

"It's exciting to be changing the rules," he says. "People have noticed that the way I move is different. I used to put my head down and get from point A to point B, and get there quickly without falling. I have a better sense of how my body works."

There's also a certain thrill in having someone push you to excel at something, he says. Usually people with disabilities are saddled with lowered expectations. But it's refreshing to be part of a show that isn't about overcoming anything, he says. It's not about the "heroic" disabled you often see in movies. It isn't about bravery. It's about using the tools people have to put on a strong performance.

"You know, parents and teachers, when they see a disabled person they tell their children, 'Don't stare. You'll make them uncomfortable,' " says Carter-Long. "Well, we are inviting you to stare. We want you to examine and discuss it, so we can get beyond it, and move past it."

Megan Tench can be reached at mtench@globe.com.

Choreographer Heidi Latsky Choreographer Heidi Latsky

GIMP Presented by Institute of Contemporary Art Friday and Saturday. Tickets: $25. 617-478-3103, www.icaboston.org