A Work of the Body
Deconstructing Preconceived Notions of Disability and Dance in Piece by Piece
Hello, World! I call myself a ‘dancer.’ I mostly look like a dancer. But I don’t entirely fit. My outline’s all wrong. I’m too tall. I’m knock-kneed. I have a hole in the back of my head. But you can have my torso. Here. It’s perfect. And perfect is all that you want, right? Well, good, because that’s all that you can have. I’m keeping the rest. I want to feel good; I want to feel whole; I want to feel free and endless. I want to dance. —Rebeccah Simone Bogue
These are the opening lines of Piece by Piece, a multimedia dance theatre piece based on the memories of ballerina Rebeccah Simone Bogue, before and after her brain hemorrhage, which left her with memory and mobility difficulties. (Since the incident, Bogue has lost balance, speech, vision, and motor skills.) The show, though, is about so much more than this: individual resilience, disability visibility, creating successful dialogue between three different types of media, and, most importantly, challenging the assumptions and perceptions of each artist and audience member about what it means to be a dancer. And despite its somber subject matter, it’s full of humor and levity.
Piece by Piece was most recently seen as a work-in-progress performance in New York City in February 2018. The presentation was the culmination of an extended residency pilot program for new work development at Dixon Place, the intention of which was to present work in front of an audience mid-process rather than as a finished piece. For the artists involved, the development of this piece was a unique challenge not only given the short amount of time they had to craft it, but also the short amount of time they had to create an artistic dialogue with each other.
Writer/performer Bogue and choreographer/performer Mikaila Ware entered the process with trepidation, but for opposite reasons. Ware had never choreographed for a dancer with a disability before, and Bogue was “skeptical of what was going to happen” because all she “ever [does] for pieces is pose.” However, this shared uncertainty actually led to a unique and empowering dialogue between Ware, Bogue, and a third performer, Njeri Rutherford, in the choreography process. Rather than the traditional choreographer directions of “This is what I want” and “This is how you get there,” the conversation became “This is what I want. How can you get to there?” This made Bogue feel like she was really dancing rather than just posing. “It wasn’t something affected or fake,” she said. The audience could feel the interconnectedness and communication between the performers, as well as their remarkable cohesion with the projections and other design elements of the show.
Rather than the traditional choreographer directions of ‘This is what I want’ and ‘This is how you get there,’ the conversation became ‘This is what I want. How can you get to there?’
The unique intersection of movement, text, and projection, designed by Erica Blumrosen, made this piece particularly powerful for the audience. Throughout the performance, illustrated line drawings by Katherine Breen are projected on a large screen, accompanying each vignette of Bogue’s story, which slowly comes together, line by line, piece by piece. As director James Blaszko points out, “Just like the show is ‘piece by piece,’ the different elements of the show are ... completely different from one another. So it’s not just the dance, it’s not just the writing, it’s not just the projection. It’s really a convergence of all of those things.” As such, the structure of the performance matches the story of the performance, and the result for the audience is the juxtaposition of disconnect and cohesion that rings true for all of us. The show makes Bogue’s relationship with her disability not just visible but also relatable to a primarily able-bodied audience.
The power of theatrical visibility has the potential to create real change in society towards the acceptance of “othered” individuals, as we have seen from the power of queer characters onstage, which translated from the stage to movies and TV, and, finally, into the national vocabulary. But this progress has notably lagged when it comes to the representation of disability onstage. Great work is certainly being done, such as the 2015–2016 production of Spring Awakening by Deaf West Theatre and the currently running production of Amy and the Orphans at Roundabout Theatre Company, which features a lead actor with Down syndrome portrayed in a positive and nuanced way.
At the same time, just last year, critics were perplexed and confused when seeing the first lead actor in a wheelchair in a Broadway show, Madison Ferris as Laura in The Glass Menagerie. An uncomfortable number of critics reporting for organizations including the New York Daily News, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Observer wrote about their physical discomfort with this actor’s presence onstage, calling it “distracting” or even a “trick” “that’s “been done on stage before.” As Ryan Donovan pointed out in his HowlRound article about this backlash: “Theatre is, literally, a place for looking and spectators are asked to look at the bodies onstage.” What makes Piece by Piece so powerful is that it specifically addresses this issue. Bogue speaks directly to the audience about this, as she literally exists as a disabled body onstage: “I don’t want to be beautiful ‘despite’ or in a ‘different’ way. I don’t want to be beautiful with hesitation. I’m tired of being ‘other.’ I’m through with being the exception. Don’t you see, World? I want to be perfect exactly as I am.”
I don’t want to be beautiful ‘despite’ or in a ‘different’ way. I don’t want to be beautiful with hesitation. I’m tired of being ‘other.’
In fact, the show is structured in such a way that Bogue is able to challenge the audience to confront this topic throughout, right from the opening monologue. The conversational manner in which Bogue tells her story, both in her words and in her performance, invites able-bodied audience members into her world with not only kindness but also criticism. She speaks about her frustration at constantly being told “I’m sorry” by strangers who are really just feeling their own pain in response to their perception of her pain.
What’s even more powerful is the way that Bogue and her artistic collaborators changed their perceptions—and the audience’s perceptions—of what a dancer can or “should” look like. Dance, even more than theatre, has strict “standards” of how bodies on stage are “supposed to” appear. Rutherford says that as a concert dancer, she was trained to see dancers one way, but that after this experience, she sees dancers differently. “You know,” she says, “there’s not just one shape for a dancer, there’s not one style of movement for a dancer. A dancer can be anything.”
While working on this production, Ware says she was forced to think beyond what she knew about dance or what dance should be, and as a result her mind opened to new choreography possibilities. According to Blaszko, “In most fully able-bodied dance companies … there’s already an understanding of what the baseline is, and I think what was interesting in this process was that the baseline was not as clearly defined. In fact it’s kind of rejected.”
Perhaps the most refreshing—and most important—thing about Piece by Piece is its levity. Bogue made a point throughout that she didn’t want people to pity her, and her humor allowed the audience to connect with her on a level beyond what she looks like. I don’t think any member of the audience expected to leave a performance about the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury laughing. But the show did just that. It will be interesting to see how the production will change as different artists continue to collaborate on future iterations of the piece. What is certain though, is that Piece by Piece will continue to demonstrate the potential our increasingly multidisciplinary theatrical future holds for both theatrical innovation and inclusion.