Troupe mixes disabled, able-bodied dancers

While polio left Bronzeville resident Alana Wallace unable to walk unassisted by age 5, she was still determined to perform. She decided she just wouldn't dance.

"Dance was a field I didn't think I could legitimately pursue as a career," Wallace said. "Dance is an arena I didn't think was open to people with disabilities, but I thought I could compete in music and theater."

But after seeing a multitalented dance troupe that mixed disabled and able-bodied performers 11 years ago, she said she was inspired not only to learn to dance but to do it professionally.

On Thursday she will perform along with her group Dance>Detour at the opening celebration for "Bodies of Work," a 10-day festival celebrating artists with disabilities from Chicago and around the world.

"We dance, we just take a different route," Wallace said. "We just take a detour."

In Dance>Detour able-bodied performers lift and twirl disabled partners and wheelchairs glide gracefully across the stage in a way Wallace compares to ice skating, with styles ranging from classical ballet to country.

"I really want people to see that professional performers with disabilities exist and have viable contributions to give to the arts and for people without disabilities to realize that we really are more alike than we are different," Wallace said. "When you see a dance performance where I'm lifted out of the wheelchair and spun around, it can dispel a lot of the ideas of what 'wheelchair confined' is."

Her dance, along with the rest of the festival, aims to make audiences re-examine the way they view people with disabilities.

"Our kind of guiding idea was to reverse the traditional formula of [someone saying] 'in spite of a disability so-and-so produced good art,'" said David Mitchell, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's department of disability and human development and one of the festival's founders. "We wanted to show how disabilities significantly affect the artist's outlook, which is expressed in their art."

Mitchell, who has a neuromuscular disability, said the initial idea for the festival was to get Chicago to recognize the excellent disabled performers in its artistic community. He enlisted an expert in each area of the arts and together they imagined an ideal festival and invited all the artists they would want to see.

After nearly three years of planning, "Bodies of Work" is pretty close to that ideal, Mitchell said. The festival incorporates music, dance, theater, film, painting, photography and poetry in a packed schedule of events all over Chicago.

Bringing together such a diverse group of artists was a major challenge for Loop resident Tekki Lomnicki, who directed and will perform in the opening performance.

"I have some people in wheelchairs, I myself am on crutches, we have a person who is blind, so he moves differently because he's not sure where he's going," said Lomnicki, who will also be performing an autobiographical one-woman show at The Second City's e.t.c. stage as part of the festival. "But all in all it's been great because the audience will see so many people with disabilities coming together to make a statement that ... disability doesn't have to stop the creative process."

"Bodies of Work" runs from Thursday to April 30. A full schedule of events is available at bodiesofwork.org.

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