When we see a guy in a wheelchair, our first impulse is to look away: Don't make eye contact, don't touch the person, don't bump him in any way.
Certainly don't dump him out of his chair, drop him on the floor, climb in the chair yourself, sitting backwards, and scoot around the room.
But those are just a few of the moves involved when the dancers of Eugene's Joint Forces Dance Company take the stage.
Directed by Alito Alessi, the company forges a gutsy alliance between traditionally athletic dancers and dancers whose bodies work quite differently.
At a recent rehearsal of "Pillars of Illusion," the first Oregon premiere from Joint Forces in seven years, Alessi was joined by dancers Amanda Herman, Emery Blackwell and Jerry Maxwell.
They form the core of a 14-member troupe for this performance.
Herman, a graduate student in dance at the University of Oregon, is all that you'd expect a professional dancer to be: trim, strong and graceful.
And so, for that matter, are Blackwell and Maxwell, but with one big difference: Both men have cerebral palsy. Their hands and bodies are twisted, their faces seem to face in different directions all at once. When they talk it requires close listening to understand what they say, if you can understand at all.
But not when they dance.
Maxwell is himself a dance teacher in Salem. Standing up from his wheelchair for part of the performance, he moves in an unsteady circle around the other dancers, walking or running with a spasmodic but controlled gait that is perilous and beautiful, mesmerizing and graceful.
"I can't stand off balance like that," Alessi mused. "I practice losing my relationship to gravity and recovering, but I can't recover the way he does. I can't run and generate the same interest he does. Every body has its own language."
And that is the point of Joint Forces. Alessi was one of six dancers who started the company here in 1979. The group was a conventional contemporary dance company in those days, touring successfully in Europe and the United States.
By 1987, though, Alessi was looking for new challenges.
"We were really interested in doing things a little bit differently," he says. "We were already working with gender equality and extreme physicality. We just decided to look for something different. We thought we had to look for people who moved differently. Where could we learn different things about movement?"
Working with a wide variety of disabled dancers over the past two decades has taught Alessi much about dance and about life, as well.
"I have really learned a lot about time," he says. "And how to really change my own sensibilities about time. With Emery you don't work with rhythm. His body doesn't move rhythmically. His body has its own rhythm."
"Pillars of Illusion" grew out of travel to Brazil, where Alessi spent time during a sabbatical financed by a 2005 Guggenheim fellowship. On his return to Eugene, he began working with Blackwell in the studio, sketching out ideas and gradually expanding them.
The work opens with three dancers on stage - an able-bodied man and woman, alongside Karen Daly, whose leg was amputated in childhood.
The five-minute piece begins with the three dancers on the floor, obscuring their physical differences. But when they stand, the difference becomes quite apparent - especially when they start trying to imitate one another's movements.
"Finally I do a little tap dance routine. And Karen just shakes her head, no. But then she proceeds to teach us a few movements from her body," Herman says.
Herman, who has been with the company only since December, says dancing with people such as Maxwell and Blackwell raises intriguing questions.
"As someone who self identifies as a dancer," she said, "I found myself asking: What looks virtuosic? What's really hard? And what is really beautiful?"
Pillars of Illusion
What: A new work from Joint Forces Dance Company
Where: Lane Community College Performance Hall, 4000 E. 30th Ave.
When: 2 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $10 to $20 (870-6563)
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|Title Annotation:||Lifestyle; Men with cerebral palsy and a woman amputee star in new dance|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||May 3, 2007|
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