Choreographer Martha Carter finds her backbone

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      Martha Carter’s multimedia new dance work explores her truly Twisted experiences with scoliosis, surgery, and survival.

      Martha Carter empties a little black bag onto the dance-studio floor. Before us lies a pile of glittering steel bits—hooks, bolts, and rods that look like hardware ripped out of the Terminator. “Don’t worry. They’ve been cleaned,” she jokes. These are pieces of the apparatus that was once used to straighten her spine. Surgically implanted in the ’70s, they were a symbol of what she couldn’t do. Now, they’re a symbol of what she can.

      Thirty-six years ago, at the age of 14, as Carter lay immobilized in an itchy body cast, a career in dance seemed like an impossibility. Before doctors had surgically fused her vertebrae and inserted the metal rods, they had made it clear that her training would have to end.

      Today, in her multimedia new work Twisted, the veteran choreographer finally deals with her struggles with scoliosis—and proves the surgeons’ predictions wrong.

      “This seems to put a nice circle on this whole story. I started as a ballet dancer that wasn’t allowed to dance and now I’m almost 50 and I’m starting to dance again,” says the affable artistic director of Marta Marta HoP. It’s just before rehearsal, and she’s sitting in a boardroom at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, wearing a Twisted promotional T-shirt screen-printed with crooked vertebrae snaking up its back. “That is the completion of my healing—emotionally, spiritually, artistically. I’m letting my body inform my choreography.” Asked to describe what the resulting style looks like, she smiles and says: “It’s very twisty. We’re moving from the spine.”

      That description certainly proves true later on, in the studio where Carter and four crack young dancers—Katy Harris-McLeod, Jennifer McLeish-Lewis, Jennifer Oleksiuk, and Alisoun Payne—are rehearsing Twisted, which debuts Wednesday to next Saturday (April 1 to 4) at the Scotiabank Dance Centre.

      Her performers double over, spiral from the hips, and stretch for the ceiling, surrounded by plaster body casts and a life-sized medical-training spine that lurks surreally at the back of the hall. Meanwhile, video artist jamie griffiths’s eerie vertebral X-rays flicker and curve around their forms. Carter’s own spoken bits are a mix of memories and wordplay: at one point she barks “C’mon—show me that you got a backbone!” to Payne, who pulls up her spine as if it were on an invisible string.

      Carter’s journey to this point has been a long and arduous one, but she’s always been driven to pursue dance. “Is it because I love dance or because it was absolutely essential to take me where I needed to go?” she wonders today.

      Twisted is anything but a literal, chronological diary of her experiences, but to fully appreciate it, you need to know the story. When she was 14, specialists gave her a choice: wear a brace for three years or have surgery to straighten the curvature. With the surgeon’s encouragement, she chose the latter.

      The torment started in the weeks before she went under the knife, when they put her in traction and a body cast to “loosen up” the spine. The ensuing surgery was much more severe than it is today, when patients are often up and walking within days.

      For the first three weeks after they inserted the rods, she was confined to a Stryker frame—a sort of sandwich bed that flipped her from her back to her stomach every four hours. Next came the body cast and, many months later, a smaller “walking cast”: when they finally told her to get up and take her first steps, she fainted from being bedridden for so long.

      Ten months post-surgery, when she was able to return to school, she faced new difficulties. “The only clothes I could find that would fit [over the cast] were my dad’s jeans and a hoodie—so I hid,” she remembers. “I was a bit like Frankenstein, so that was a little hard on me socially.”

      Things improved at Stanford University, where the Vancouverite studied music. There, she found herself drawn to the burgeoning world of modern dance, choreographing and even practising it (“The doctors and parents were far away,” she says with a shrug), and eventually pursuing a master’s in the art form at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Though her goal was always to create works for others, she pushed her body into all the required training in techniques.

      By any measure, Carter has had a successful career: she’s taught at universities from Concordia to SFU and she’s directed tours for Compagnie Marie Chouinard; in Montreal, she cofounded both a dance centre (Studio 303, in 1989) and, in the ’90s, House of Pride, which fused drag performance, voguing, and club video effects. But she sees a lot of her work as an exercise in ignoring, if not hiding, her problems.

      “At 33 I basically had an emotional breakdown and I knew it was related to my spine”¦.I started crying and I couldn’t stop,” she says. “That began the journey that led me to making this piece.”

      By 35, she had become obsessed with removing the rods and convinced a doctor to perform the surgery. “I was warned they could be calcified but I did so much visualization and meditation they were all loose and just popped right out,” she says. Still, it took years of massage and physiotherapy, and a lot of pain, to work through the scar tissue.

      Carter began spending more time back in Vancouver, eventually moving here four years ago. Among Marta Marta HoP’s first works here was the urban-dance-cranked iDub. But memories of her surgery kept resurfacing. It became clear that the best way, as always, for her to express it all was through dance. “I knew that the only way I could properly do it is for me to perform it,” she says. “You have to put yourself back into that place.”

      Years in the making, Twisted has evolved into one of her signature multisensory hybrids—sets, props, and costumes that play the clinical off the artistic world; X-rays projected onto dancers’ backs; and even an appearance by those shiny metal pieces.

      Twisted is making an impact even before it opens, already connecting with people with scoliosis who have caught works in progress or seen some of her ongoing video diaries on YouTube.

      Carter is in the midst of making an accompanying film about its creation, and she eventually hopes to start a Web site where people can post artistic expressions of their experiences with scoliosis.

      “I’m laying myself on the line and coming out of the closet in some ways—but the kind of response that I’ve already had is that it’s touching people,” she reflects before pushing her body, and her spine, into a performance that both accepts and defies all that’s been done to it. “Everybody needs to feel control in their body—they need a conversation with it, because nobody escapes it.”