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Choreographer Patty Krauss finds the dance through her mixed-abilities company, Seize the Day.

Patty Krauss is choreographing a pivotal face-off between dancers Berto Robie and Ajax Joe Drayton. She has several weeks left to pull together He Speaks for the Trees, her theatrical dance adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ enviro-cautionary tale The Lorax. Robie plays the Lorax, the tree-dwelling Cassandra who is “shortish. And oldish. And brownish. And mossy./And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy.” In this scene, the Lorax orders Drayton’s rapacious Once-ler to stop chopping down the Truffula trees. The Once-ler defends his right to harvest Truffula tufts to keep manufacturing Thneeds, “a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”

Dr. Seuss drew the Once-ler as a pair of green arms protruding from a series of bulging structures—wagon, office, factory, and, once he’s destroyed the whole ecosystem, lonely tower. Krauss has Drayton in a wheelchair that’s been covered in a huge frontier-wagon-shaped bonnet of muslin. The able-bodied Drayton, usually a blur of wiry limbs and flying dreadlocks when he dances, has only his voice and his long, gloved arms to work with now. Drayton’s arms not only pantomime the Once-ler’s empire-building and punctuate his greedy speeches—they also propel his dancing. Drayton cheats in rehearsal, pushing off with his feet as well as wheeling the chair with his hands. “You can’t sidestep in these things,” he complains. “There’s no sideways.”

Robie demonstrates how to make tighter turns, drawing on his 46 years of experience in and out of wheelchairs. He contracted polio when he was 3 and used crutches from age 7 to 14, when he had most of his spine fused to arrest the scoliosis twisting his torso. He spent 15 months on his back recovering from that surgery, and then, for the next 20 years, pushed himself to the limits of independence—backpacking around the country alone at one point. As he got older, his joints began to decay, and he split his time between crutches and the chair. About eight years ago, he fell while moving from his van to his wheelchair and broke his good leg. Since then, he has used the wheelchair exclusively.

Robie admits to a certain relief in giving up “the marathon of just getting around” on his crutches. From his newly permanent wheelchair vantage, he says, he took stock of his life and “learned to relax.” He hired someone to help him clean and cook, took some computer classes, and met and married Maria Cairoli, who had also had polio and had also moved from crutches to a chair. When they met, Robie says, “It was like looking in a mirror.”

In 1995, he answered a call for actors with disabilities. The notice had been placed by Krauss, who was recruiting for her mixed-abilities dance company, Seize the Day. “I don’t know if I would have gone if I’d known it was dance, not theater,” Robie says. Nevertheless, Krauss was impressed with his talent for physical comedy as well as his theatrical instincts, and Robie has been a core member of the company ever since. Robie doubts himself as a dancer sometimes, but says, “Patty’s smart enough to know how to choreograph for what I can do. If she says it looks good, I believe her.”

Krauss has been dancing for 25 years and has a master’s degree in special education from Johns Hopkins. She grew up close to an aunt who had Down syndrome, and in 1989, her mother had a stroke that paralyzed one side of her body. Krauss started teaching disabled kids in the early ’90s—the same time she began reading about dancers like Seattle’s Charlene Curtiss and Berkeley’s Bruce Curtis, both of whom suffered spinal cord injuries as teenagers and started dance companies from their wheelchairs. Krauss says she’s surprised it took her until 1993 to bring together all these threads and found Seize the Day.

Krauss is an acolyte of contact improvisation, a technique created by former Merce Cunningham dancer Steve Paxton. Contact improv is both inspiration and a tool, she says, for “finding the dance” between an able-bodied and a disabled person. The two dancers start by touching, often palm-to-palm, and “find the center of balance between them.” They then shift and extend the point of contact beyond their hands, rolling more and more of their bodies together. Often, one dancer takes the other’s full weight on his or her back. The slow, gymnastic undulations uncover “other movement possibilities,” Krauss explains. “It breaks down the expectation that the person in the wheelchair has to do ‘steps’; they can find their own way of moving with you that’s totally new and fresh and based on what they can do.”

Because their lives are a series of exhausting negotiations, many disabled people “don’t know their bodies,” Krauss says. “They know they hurt, they know what they can’t do, but they don’t know what they can do.” Besides contact improv, she also likes “to get them out of the wheelchair so they actually feel their body weight on the floor, and I get down there with them.” She leads disabled people into their bodies “the way I would start any class, by tuning into the breath, a slow warmup starting at the top of the head and focusing on the spine….Any dancer, flamenco or modern, able-bodied or disabled, if they have that awareness of where their body is in space, the dancing is real and powerful.” Robie concurs and says that dancing has changed his relationship to his nerve-damaged body. “When I’m dancing, I become less judgmental—which is nice, because I’m a critical person….I can see the fluidity of movement.”

Clearly dance helps both able-bodied and disabled people learn about their bodies. But is that awareness really enough to make good dance? Is authenticity the same as chops? Doesn’t a dancer need to be able to leap and bend and twist? What about quality? What about beauty? Similar questions are rattling every art form now, but they’re uniquely political in dance, where the raw material is human bodies. The gates have been stormed: The castle is no longer held by anorexic white girls and the despots who drill them 18 hours a day. Is allowing in dark-skinned people, fat people, old people, people with less training, and people in wheelchairs a triumph of democracy or of mediocrity, or both?

One early gatecrasher is Liz Lerman, who began choreographing for senior citizens almost 30 years ago. When I ask Lerman, who maintains a studio in Takoma Park, to define dance given all the recent changes, she answers crisply: “Two things are making you ask that. One is the flattening of the culture. When I was coming up there was high art—ballet—and low art—which is what you saw in the streets. Then there’s the movement from spectacle to participation. The audience-performer relationship is better if the audience has done the thing they’re watching.” Krauss agrees, adding that putting more types of people on stage will widen the small audience for all dance.

Both choreographers say they’re motivated by good art, not good works. “This began as an artistic enterprise,” Lerman says of her internationally acclaimed ensemble. “I couldn’t make the art I wanted to make without old people. My mother died of cancer, and I needed these old angels in my dance about it.” Lerman and Krauss both assert that physical prowess is an outdated measure in dance. Lerman adds, “Breaking those expectations opened up the dance. Audiences saw the old people on stage and they said, ‘OK, it’s not about getting the leg up high. Well, then, what is it about?’”

When disabled people are on a stage, it’s partly about their struggles—and also about the unsettling mix of sympathy, aversion, and guilt they inspire in able-bodied audiences. The sympathizers, Krauss says, are just as likely to misunderstand her work as the ones who dismiss as “PC” any minority voice that makes them uncomfortable. When audience members say after a show, “What a wonderful thing you’re doing; it must be so rewarding,” Krauss generally assumes that they didn’t get it. Similarly, Robie says, “I worry sometimes that people clap and cheer just because I’m out there trying to be a dancer…that they’re just acknowledging the courage part of it.”

When I admit that seeing someone leave his or her wheelchair and move on the floor makes me uneasy, Krauss responds quickly: “Is that bad?” But Robie’s take on the artistic use of discomfort is a little different. Acknowledging how tough Krauss’ job is, he says, “If I were directing a group and someone disabled was up there looking like they were struggling and making the audience feel uncomfortable, I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t want people thinking, He shouldn’t be up there.” Robie has spent his life trying to put people at ease, to pull them past their reluctance to talk to the guy in the wheelchair. “Patty or some other artist who didn’t grow up with a disability may like getting people out of their complacency more, may like saying to an audience, ‘Look at this and deal with your discomfort.’ But I may revert more to that wanting to please.”

At its best, Krauss’ work negotiates all these land mines, challenging assumptions and shifting comfort levels simply by succeeding. She shows me a videotape of a recent performance in which she duets with Rob Goode, a teenager who has cerebral palsy. His steps are as tentative as a foal’s, his body bowed inward as he tries to raise his arms straight above his head. Krauss mirrors Goode like a closing parenthesis, uncovering the grace in his bent stance and halting movement. The risk of mockery pays off with an artistic jackpot: The dance changes the way the viewer sees.

Something similar happens during the rehearsal of He Speaks for the Trees. After the Once-ler kills all the trees and pollutes the air and water, the Lorax tells him how the Humming-Fish were driven from their filthy pond to wander on land. Robie is practicing his fish speech: “Oh, their future is dreary./They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary/In search of some water that isn’t so smeary.” On the “walk on their fins” line, Robie points his elbows down at his tiny legs and jerks them forward to the cadences of Dr. Seuss. The quick, instinctive move spotlights the stiffness of his fused spine and the limited mobility of his left arm. It crystallizes fin-walking. It is perfect.

As I savor the little burst of physical eloquence, I feel guilty for a moment, as if I’m enjoying Robie’s disability. It also feels strange to buck years of etiquette and stare at someone in a wheelchair. But then, for the first time in my life, the phrase “differently abled” doesn’t seem like a Pollyannaish lie. I understand how Krauss and Lerman broaden their palettes and their possibilities by choreographing for their “limited” dancers. Though Robie worries sometimes that he’s “not particularly agile,” Baryshnikov couldn’t do that fin-walk any better. CP

He Speaks for the Trees runs to Nov. 20 at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly. For information call (301) 277-1710.