New works at CounterBalance prove inclusive dance is still challenging perception

The boundless creativity of physically-integrated dance—where performers with and without disabilities work in tandem—is on full display as Momenta Dance Company continues to challenge what is possible in the realm of contemporary dance.

Momenta, Access Living and Bodies of Work presented “CounterBalance 2020” virtually from Oct. 7-11 with production assistance by studiothread. This all-inclusive dance event featured short films highlighting a compilation of repertoire by Momenta and guest company Kinetic Light, plus a documentary tribute to the late dancer and visual artist Lisa Bufano. The weekend-long festival also included online dance workshops, a panel discussion with key advocates from Chicago’s integrated dance scene and a repertory film titled “Reflections” that presents a tell-and-show compilation of past “CounterBalance” performances.  All performances were presented in two formats: one with captioning and one with audio description.

In “Sensational Shorts,” a mini-film festival, Momenta presented three short films under the title “Dancing at a Distance” that make use of cinematic effects in conjunction with their own brand of modern dance choreography.  First on the program, “In Unison” is a Sam Spade-inspired shadowy, film noir in a train station with sharp sounds of violin pizzicato accompanying ethereal spirits whose melting movements tumble into each other. A similar idea is explored in the piece “Street Staged,” with black-clad human frames set against colorful and cracked street murals, each unfolding limb acting as a segue to the next. “Midnight Ride” is a solo street dance featuring dancer Kris Lenzo under the glare of a street lamp in an abandoned parking lot as he grinds the gravel beneath his body by spiraling to the ground while simultaneously launching his wheelchair into a tailspin beside him.

Guest company Kinetic Light and director Katherine Helen Fisher’s short film “Revel in your Body” is everything that a modern dance and video team up should be: crisp, clear slow-motion images of dancers making impossible feats of strength look effortless with post-editing trickery keeping the eye always searching between the frames of the film. I recognized the sparkly gold and silver tanks, leggings and wheel spokes against a baby blue sky from a presentation at the South African virtual JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience earlier this year, and I still cannot figure out how dancers Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson managed to jettison both bodies and wheelchairs so high into the air.

Two documentaries were also on display over the weekend, with the first titled “Counter//Balance” by Anuradha Rana being a formal telling of the decade-long advocacy work done by Momenta and All Access. It is a story of inclusivity and tolerance, with dance being a gateway to self-expression that many disabled people may not even realize is an outlet afforded to them. The effect of integrated dance not only transforms the lives of children and adults with disabilities, but also transforms the audience, who learns to let go of prejudice and discrimination when the integrated dance style challenge predispositions about what it means to be disabled.

A second documentary, “One of Us,” is a tribute to dancer and visual artist Lisa Bufano by filmmaker Mike Dutka and narrated by CounterBalance founder Ginger Lane. Bufano, who passed away prematurely in 2013, was not shy about her loss of her lower legs and fingers to a bacterial infection in her twenties and chose to confront audiences’ curiosity with outlandish gestures, movements and outfits.  From an interview with Bufano included in the documentary: “My eye has always been drawn to abnormal forms… It’s just that now my tool is my body.”  Bufano may be best known for her original prosthetic creations— long, gnarled stilts affixed to her arms and knees that give her an otherworldly and grotesque bestial appearance.

The CounterBalance event is an example of why I love contemporary dance—you can do anything and anyone can do it—but sometimes our minds are so closed that we limit ourselves to what we believe is possible. Watching the nuance and feats of strength displayed by the dancers in this program has a humbling effect in that—just when you thought you’ve seen it all—a group of talented artists come forth to remind us that we haven’t seen anything yet.