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An Interview with Karen Peterson and Dancers (KPD)

Original Interviewer: Neil de la Flor, Miami, FL, USA

Additional Question: The International Inclusive Arts Network

 

Introduction:

Karen Peterson and Dancers (KPD) recently performed at the University of South Florida at a festival entitled “A New Definition of Dance”. This was an international mixed ability showcase that featured artists from all over the world. KPD was honored to be invited to perform at this dance event that showcased ballroom dancers from Eastern Europe, hip-hop artists from Canada. Chinese traditional dance from Beijing, drumming dancers from Africa as well as Axis Dance from California. All of these artists with disabilities teach and perform their form throughout the world and this festival proved to me that the world of inclusion has certainly changed and developed since KPD was established 25 years ago.

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How does funding impact the mixed ability dance community?

My biggest challenge is to pay dancers for their rehearsal time on the very little funding. Each dancer makes approximately $50 per week over the course of a seven- month season. The format of the dance company with paid salaries is almost extinct but in my special circumstance, I cannot pick up a group of trained dancers and complete a project in several weeks. The investigative time it takes to explore different abilities is more than the traditional form. Finding the dollars to pay dancers for more time in the studio is a constant battle.

My unique, quirky and one-of-a-kind dance organization is ready to receive a large infusion of cash to keep the development of the programming moving forward for the next 25 years. No other dance organization in Dade County has done so much on so little and has impacted thousands of individuals in the dance and disability community on the ideas of inclusion and dance. My dream is to have the proper funding to match the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs dollars that I have received since 1990 in order to pay dancers a decent salary.

 

What are some of the major advantages and challenges associated with the art of mixed ability dance??

Like any contemporary dance company we make the hard work look easy. When a person shows up at the studio door and has viewed a company performance, this individual is often inspired to be “part of the KPD team”. What they do not see are the many hours of rehearsal and exploration time we spend in the studio prior to our performances. We create our new mixed-ability “language” and unlike ballet or certain contemporary dance techniques, there are no classroom steps to string together to make choreography. Patience is part of the process and as they say “a labor of love.”

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The KPD group takes two classes together, one in contact improvisation and one in technique each week and rehearses 5-6 hours depending upon what is on our schedule. Since this 15-16 year we will have two new premiers in May 2016 a lot of studio time is spent on exploration and research. All of the new work starts with improvisation. Through the choreographer’s directives we ask “What can we discover together, what are our common movement pathways, how can we complement each other’s physical abilities and how can we highlight our strengths not weakness?”

Because my process takes more time than typical choreography we need more time in the studio which equals more dollars to pay dancers. Another challenge is access. We recently traveled to Tampa and accessibility is always an issue on the road, in hotels and in the theater. We are very lucky to perform in the United States where the ADA laws are usually enforced and up-to-date. When we have traveled to other countries, and their ADA standards are not up to code. We have improvised within our journeys and deal with cobblestone streets. Non-cut curbs, non-access bathrooms, non access dressing rooms etc. etc.. My dancers are very generous in spirit and part of their duty is to help solve the accessibility problems that we face outside of the studio.

On the other hand, Great Britain is way beyond the United States in funding mixed-ability dance companies, with full time salaries and medical benefits for dancers. Canduco, a London based physically integrated company, set the stage with professional dance 25 years ago and from there the movement has spread like wild fire. “Croi Glan”, a company based in Cork, Ireland, performed in our 25th anniversary concert in May 2015 on their way throughout the USA for a company tour totally funded by the Irish Arts Council. (Could we be so lucky?)

We have taught and performed in Eastern Europe four times since 1995 and Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia have been generous in spirit and curious about the work. They have a deep artistic desire and democratic leanings to include dance artists with disabilities into their culture as they try to formalize their own ADA laws into their constitutions. Often I speak to young attorneys while teaching in parts of Eastern Europe for they want to know about cut curbs, accessible buses, accessible hotels; many of the advantages we take for granted in the USA and UK.

 

What still needs to be done (or can be done) to de-stigmatize mixed ability dancers?

The quality of mixed ability work has developed by leaps and bounds over the past decade and hundreds of groups have heightened the attention to the professional work being developed around the world. Since 1990, many more groups celebrate the creative catalyst in their communities and embraces diversity and innovation. Mixed-ability has become de-stigmatized by the sheer growth of the form.

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One of the most positive elements in my organization is the teen program that is based on inclusion. The teens that use wheelchairs, or have intellectual or learning disabilities create and perform on stage with ALL their peers. I have noticed a deep empathy or bond between the students when it comes to assisting each other especially during the performance. They know everyone has equal value in the performance. Our talent showcase breaks barriers and stigma for these middle and high school students as they go through the process of creation and performance. They are our future ambassadors for physically integrated dance.

 

What’s coming up with KPD—any specific performances, workshops, etc. scheduled for the

remainder of the year?

For the remainder of the season we have several important events on a local and national level. This year we have commissioned a new work by co-choreographers Juan Maria Seller and Katrina Weaver entitled “Inside the Brick”. We are looking for an underwriter to help bring the work to full fruition for the May performance. We are also in conversation with Pioneer Winter about the possibility of a duet created by him with Marjorie Burnett.

For the May 2016 program we will also present collaboration with six Portuguese dancers from Lisbon and the 5 KPD company members. We will begin the creative process in April in Lisbon with the Amalgama and Plural Dance integrated dance companies. The work will be finalized and premiered at Miami Dade County Auditorium, May 12 and 13, 2016 and will feature 10 artists, four with disabilities. This is a continuation of my nine-year history of collaborating and creating cultural exchanges with dance artists from overseas and we are looking for a Corporate Sponsor to assist with the cultural exchange.

We will also have a fundraiser on Saturday, December 19 at 6 PM at my studio space Excello and will perform small excerpts of student and company work along with champagne and chocolate desserts.

We also have a modern dance, non-competitive program for chair and non chair dancers at the company’s home, for students ages eleven and older.

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