Propeller Dance defies assumptions by redefining dance

Flesh and Spokes, Propeller Dance; photo by Balfour Photo

For those who consider dance to be soaring movements that defy gravity, Propeller Dance would like to offer a redefinition. 

For 15 years, this Ottawa-based disability arts/integrated dance company has presented professional performances at venues across Canada which deploy new aesthetics rooted in true diversity and promoting a holistic view of the body. The company has also inspired differently-abled people, including those with disabilities, to dance. The company’s work is rooted in the simple belief that dance is for all people. And the quality and originality of that work have made them leaders in innovative, inclusive creation and teaching practices.

Propeller Dance is premiering two new works Flesh and Spokes and Spasticus at Fleck Dance Theatre on March 13 and 14. Both pieces ask audiences to challenge their assumptions and open their hearts to celebrate diverse bodies and minds. Originally commissioned by Dusk Dances in 2015, Flesh and Spokes is choreographed by Propeller Dance’s Artistic Co-Director Renata Soutter, who has dedicated her professional career to socially-engaged dance innovation. The Ian Dury “spastic” anthem-inspired Spasticus, choreographed by Artistic Associate Liz Winkelaar, is a celebrated part of the company’s repertoire, and has been performed in numerous venues.

SesayArts spoke with Soutter and Winkelaar about these shows, the impact of Propeller Dance, and what lies ahead for the company (which includes a hint of a large-scale piece that Soutter is “cooking up”). 

SesayArts: The work and vision of Propeller Dance challenge perceptions and assumptions of what dance is, and what ability is. What changes to traditional thinking have you noticed so far as a result of your work? 

Soutter and Winkelaar: Things are shifting and, after fifteen years of hard work and advocacy, there is more interest in and openness to hearing stories and experiencing a broader expression of culture, including that of artists with disabilities. In fact, this is an historical moment that is full of significance—a first time that integrated dance in Ontario is being presented by a “mainstage” Dance Presenter. We’ve been presented by theatres and multi-arts venues but never specifically by a mainstage Ontario Dance presenter. So, it’s a milestone and one that we hope will help pave the way for other disabled artists.

Propeller has been at the helm of encouraging more diversity of minds and bodies in dance and building opportunities for people with disability to work as choreographers and dancers interdependently. We’ve created working models that empower disabled people and create value out of diverse expression. It’s just more representative of our society and our humanity – so frankly, more interesting.

SesayArts: What further change are you hoping to effect?

Soutter and Winkelaar: Our dream is to have integrated dance and disability arts in Canada on the main stages. We want to keep creating high-quality work that is toured and seen widely and appreciated as art for art’s sake. 

SesayArts: According to the press release, Flesh and Spokes and Spasticus “explore bodies with disabilities, reflected in dance in unique ways”. Could you elaborate on this? 

Soutter and Winkelaar: Stay open to experiencing atypical movements and expressions–just because someone doesn’t jump to the roof or do the splits—does that touch your heart any less? Notice when you are moved, and why and what that means to you.  

Propeller is a company of people of many abilities—many established companies worldwide are companies that are made up of dancers with physical disability only or physical disability and able-bodied dancers. Propeller is a much more diverse company – a company of atypical dancers—with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health lived experiences, physical disabilities, able bodies, autism, etc. Each dancer has their unique physicality and expression and that is valuable. The body is full of opportunity and it’s the surprising moments that offer so much. 

SesayArts: What can we expect to see on the stage at this show?  What should we pay particular attention to?

Soutter and Winkelaar: Spasticus is inspired by the work of Ian Dury, a punk-rocker who had polio and lived with disabilities.  He wrote his anthem, “Spasticus Autisticus,” as a war cry for freedom for people with disabilities.  As people with disabilities we reject both the charity model and the medical model of disability and instead embrace disability as a reason to be loud and proud, to reject charity and demand justice and inclusion. The dance symbolically depicts the historical oppression of disabled people and the horrors of institutionalization. Spasticus blends vaudevillian humour with rock-and-roll rebellion. Hello to you out there in Normal Land….

Flesh and Spokes is an abstract contemporary dance piece that revels in our limitations and stretches our understanding of possibility. The piece is akin to a massive moving sculpture of humanity. It’s also set to an originally composed sound score played entirely on a wheelchair (which might be a first) – concept by Jesse Stewart, expertly executed by composer/musician Dominique Saint-Pierre. Flesh and Spokes is my expression of the dichotomy between being messy humans and striving for humanity. 

SesayArts: Are you working on anything right now for a future performance that you would like us to know about? 

Soutter and Winkelaar: Next year, Propeller is focusing on creating duets and trios out of our Emerging Choreographers with Disability program. Renata Soutter is slowly cooking up a large-scale performance piece that takes place in a garden and in a theatre. We are interested to build more digital awareness and tools so others living remotely or in isolation can access our work. And mostly we are keen to keep our repertoire pieces alive and touring. 

Flesh and Spokes, Propeller Dance; photo by Balfour Photo

News You Can Use

What: Flesh and Spokes and Spasticus, created by Renata Soutter and Liz Winkelaar │A Propeller Dance Production (Renata Soutter and Shara Weaver, Artistic Co-Directors) │ Presented by DanceWorks

  • Flesh and Spokes, Choreographer: Renata Soutter│Music: Dominique Saint-Pierre

Dancers: Cee Ancheta, Sylvain Bouchard, Bella Bowes, Robert Chartier, Geoff Dollar, Amelia Griffin, Nicolas Benoit Mariaca, Liz Winkelaar, Russell Winkelaar

  • Spasticus, Concept and Director: Liz Winkelaar│Music: Ian Dury, Dominique Saint-Pierre│Choreography Mentor: Renata Soutter

Dancers: Cee Ancheta, Sylvain Bouchard, Bella Bowes, Ada Chan, Robert Chartier, Geoff Dollar, Moni Hoffman, Jessie Huggett, Nicolas Benoit Mariaca, and Russell Winkelaar 

When: March 13 – 14, 2020, 7:30 pm

Where: Fleck Dance Theatre (Harbourfront Centre), 207 Queens Quay W, Toronto, ON 

Info and Tickets: danceworks.ca 

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.