Last week, in recognition of Autism Awareness month, dre.dance Company premiered beyond.words at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center. beyond.words, a performance choreographed by Andrew Palermo and actor Taye Diggs, attempts to shed light on autism through dance.
The performance takes its inspiration from a CNN feature on Amanda Baggs, an autistic woman who uses her computer to “speak” text that she turns into documentary videos. Palermo was particularly struck when he watched the video, In My Words, on the web two years ago.
“In Baggs’ video, what I really took away from it was her central message in saying just because I speak a different language doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Maybe people should learn to speak my language instead,” says Palermo.
This was the jumping-off point that led Palermo and Diggs to further research into autism and its possible interpretations through dance. Dre.dance experimented and fielded initial ideas and choreography through a residency at Wichita State University. The first 20 minutes of beyond.words was born at the school’s department of dance.
Dre.dance continued to collaborate through workshops with Heartspring, an autism center and a school for children with special needs. There, workshops provided more research and inspiration for the choreography.
Other more traditional research included books, videos, interviews and very emotional interviews with those affected by autism. Taken together, Diggs and Palermo found fertile grounds for completing the full performance of beyond.words.
Beyond.words uses simple costumes, ambient lighting and expressive movement vocabulary in a black-box theater in order to translate autism into dance. A particular movement called “stimming” (or self stimulation, with rocking repetitive movements), reflects the patterning and interpretation of the battle between maelstrom and inner peace that both autistic and Asperger’s individuals describe as an ongoing dialogue within themselves.
Though the movements themselves are loud and expressive, throughout the performance there are no words spoken. The effect is deeply moving.
The first showing of beyond.words was co-sponsored with Autism Speaks on April 2, 2009, for World Autism Awareness Day. The entire audience was made up of people directly affected by autism, including children, parents, educators—the type of audience to which the piece was specifically targeted.
“The audience that night gave us responses saying that what you’re doing on stage is my son and my daughter. These are the things I can’t really explain to people—that’s the biggest compliment we can get,” says Palermo.
In terms of future direction, Palermo (along with dre.dance) will continue to perform beyond.words on tour nationwide and abroad. They will also be constructing more workshops through schools and organizations across the country. Additionally, Palermo will be speaking at autism-related conferences such as the 2009 Mind and Body in Autism conference at Columbia University.
“More than anything, the main point is to look at autism with a little bit more of a joyful eye than as something that must be eradicated. And we’re trying to say that there is something we can learn from this spectrum as much as they need to learn from us as well,” says Palermo.
For more information on dre.dance, visit dredance.com. To learn more about autism, visit autismspeaks.org.
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