Outside on the fourth floor balcony of the Information Commons (IC), a group of nearly 25 people — some old and some young — gathered in a clump. They slowly inhaled, collectively looking up to the bright, blue sky, and proceeded to perform the movements that for some are new, and for others have been rehearsed for months. A tiny camera weaved through the group, capturing both the dances for what was soon to become “All,” a dance film about forming community in places and with people we wouldn’t normally associate with.
Loyola faculty, students and alumni teamed with community dancers who have Parkinson’s Disease last semester to form the Virtual Dance Ensemble, a project centered around creating a dance film using the medium to bring dancers from different communities together. The project was developed at Loyola’s In/Motion Dance Film Festival in 2015. Filmed last October, the completed film will screen at Loyola’s In/ Motion festival March 17-19.
Los Angeles-based alumna Sarah Prinz and her partner Daniel Rosenberg directed and filmed the project, with Loyola dance faculty member Amy Wilkinson acting as producer and on-site director. Sarah Cullen Fuller, a dance instructor at Loyola, coordinated the dancers and led the rehearsals, with Loyola senior Laura Prieto documenting rehearsals, conducting research and facilitating communication between the dancers and project leaders.
“We’re trying to find a commonality between different artists of different ages and abilities and backgrounds, and I feel oftentimes in my work with other populations that there is more we have in common — especially through dance — than maybe we realize,” Fuller said. “I had never thought that a 75-year-old person with Parkinson’s
Disease would become one of my closest friends, but that has happened over the years. We all share a lot more than we think.”
How it began
At the 2015 inaugural In/Motion Dance Film Festival, Fuller brought Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Parkinson’s Project to Loyola. The members of the Parkinson’s Project, along with the other In/Motion participants, screened a dance documentary about dancers with Parkinson’s before Fuller led a community workshop.
Dance faculty member Amy Wilkinson collaborated with then-Loyola senior Sarah Prinz to set up an area to film each individual dancer in the Parkinson’s Project. The footage was then put together with other dance videos sent in from dancers around the world, including some from Loyola. The result was the Virtual Dance Ensemble.
The goal was to cut the individual videos together to create one ensemble of dancers moving together, despite geographical or physical restraints on all the participants, according to the dancers and instructors alike. But Wilkinson said when it came time for editing, the vast amount of footage they collected of the Parkinson’s Project dancers didn’t convey this idea of an able, communal group of dancers.
“We started the editing process and realized that it wasn’t quite capturing what we were going for, which was this sense of community because people were doing these movement phrases in isolation,” Wilkinson said. “When we went and looked back at the footage, it looked as though we were focusing on disability rather than person-first.”
The dancers decided to revisit the project in 2016, this time with an in-depth, group rehearsal process.
The rehearsal process
Rehearsals began on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus last September, with six Loyola dance majors and around 20 dancers from the Parkinson’s Project.
Fuller’s rehearsals for the project expanded on the technique classes she normally taught at Hubbard Street and focused on connecting movement to memory. Loyola dancers were often paired up with the dancers with Parkinson’s, asked to share memories based on a prompt and told to create movement inspired by those memories.
“It’s always so gratifying to experience someone’s story through different mediums, and there was so much I learned through this experience about the dancers,” Fuller said.
Prieto noted how the rehearsal process deepened the connection between the dancers and made them more vulnerable artists.
“In the last rehearsal we did, [one of the dancers] shared a story about almost losing his son. I wrote about that in my research and was like, ‘This would not have been shared otherwise,’” Prieto said. “He, for some reason, felt that this was the space that he could share it, and I want to attribute that to the community that was being built.”
Weekly rehearsals ended when Prinz and Rosenberg came to Chicago to film in October. Filming started on the fourth floor of the IC where new dancers joined the group who had been rehearsing together for months. Those who were not present at the weekly rehearsals learned the movement through a video posted online.
“The experiment at that point was can we make a film, can we work with these people — some of whom we had never met and some of them who had been working together long term — to create a feeling and to create a film that actually conveys this sense of community or conveys this sense that dance is for all bodies,” Wilkinson said.
On Oct. 8, the group that had been rehearsing together throughout the semester met in two of the dancers’ homes for personal interviews and to improvise independently.
“We wanted to capture something as if no one was around, and they were kind of just living a memory in whichever room they were drawn to. So I think that filming this intimately in these intimate spaces created a foundation for an emotional risk,” Prinz said. “I think it added a layer of intimacy that was undeniable.”
Prieto documented both the rehearsal and film process as research for her McNair Scholarship, which is awarded to students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help them enroll in graduate school. While helping facilitate rehearsals and communication between the dancers and project leaders, she also took photos, videos and written notes to aid in her investigation of how one builds community among a diverse group of dancers to challenge the notion of disability as spectacle. Prieto said she wanted to challenge the idea that performers with disabilities are often appreciated for their disability over their performance or artistry.
Prieto said she found that the extended rehearsal process and the per- sonal interviews with the dancers with Parkinson’s helped break the spectacle of disability in “All” and allowed the dancers to be artists.
“I think the biggest take away for me for the whole project was definite- ly how much I don’t know. Like how complex academia is, how complex the creative process is,” Prieto said. “And disability as a social construct, which I didn’t think of previously because I never thought about it. I don’t have a disability, so why would I think about it?”
Prieto said she plans to publish her research in the McNair research journal “Pathways.” She will also be speaking in a panel at UCLA conference titled “Disability as Spectacle,” with Fuller, Wilkinson, Prinz and Rosenberg.
The final product
The creators and participants of “All” will come together in March as a part of the In/Motion Dance Film Festival. In/Motion is Chicago’s only dance film festival and is also affiliated with Loyola’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts.
The festival, March 17-19, is rooted in social justice and aims to promote work created by marginalized artists and focus on themes of social justice, particularly disability, feminism, racial diversity and environmentalism.
March 18 will be dedicated to exploring dance and disability at the festival. Fuller is expected to lead a commu- nity class, followed by the dance film “Ripped,” which features Chris Lenzo, a Chicago dancer and recipient of the Three Arts Award, who also has two amputated legs. Lenzo will perform a live solo, followed by the premiere of “All” and an open panel discussion. The events are open to all Loyola students and Chicago community members.
Looking back on the experience, Wilkinson said the project was empowering and transformative for all involved.
“These are the things that remind me over and over and over again that the work we do is necessary. Entertainment is great, but art is so much more than that,” Wilkinson said. “There is power in making work and giving a voice to people who may not have had that kind of platform. I think that power changes people.”
For more information on “All” and the In/Motion Dance Film Festival, visit www.inmotionfestival.com
Editor’s Note: Jordan Kunkel is one of the six Loyola dancers in the “All” project.