Body Language

You Won't See The Artists At The Kickstart2 Festival Using Their Physical And Mental Disabilities As A Crutch

When she was 35, Catherine Cole gave birth to her only child, a son. She had also recently been diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that often strikes the extremities. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation were successful in obliterating the disease, but the harsh treatment destroyed all of the healthy cells in her left leg. In 2001, Cole had it amputated just below her hip. The California playwright tells the Georgia Straight that she quickly learned to put the experience into perspective. The loss of limb is a common outcome of this type of cancer. So is death. For her, a somewhat surprising consequence of losing her leg was discovering a new hobby and passion: dance.

Cole, who teaches drama at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains that following her amputation she wrote a play called Out on a Limb. The process helped her come to terms with many of the emotions that accompany being an amputee. It also sparked her creativity.

"After Out on a Limb, I was invited to create something for a local festival," Cole, 40, says in a phone interview. "I just couldn't get past the idea of dancing, even though I hadn't really danced before....I danced as a child, but I didn't really key in to the love of dance; in fact, the classes turned me off.

"At the U of C, our department of theatre has a dance division," she continues. "I was having a conversation with our choreographer, and I asked him if he would teach me how to pirouette. He said, 'Well, you only need one leg to pirouette.' And that's when I realized how deeply I love dance."

Cole started to get serious about her training. Time spent turning on her right toes inspired her to make the multidisciplinary piece Five Foot Feat, which premiered the same year she lost her leg. She'll bring a revamped version to the Roundhouse Community Centre next Friday and Saturday (September 17 and 18) as part of the KickstART2 Festival of Disability Arts and Culture.

An initiative of the Vancouver-based Society for Disability Arts and Culture, the event--at the Roundhouse from next Thursday to Sunday (September 16 to 19)--encompasses music, comedy, dance, theatre, and visual and literary genres. Its goals include using art as a means to smash stereotypes and break down prejudices related to disabilities, and to showcase the work of people with physical or mental limitations who are underrepresented in the arts.

Featuring live percussion, spoken word, mime, and movement, Five Foot Feat revolves around three main characters who are each facing personal challenges and reach a point of transformation. It's autobiographical, Cole says; the performers draw on material from their own lives.

"Even though it seems very ironic for me to be a dancer, it's quite an organic extension of myself; it helped me reclaim my body," she says. "When I lost my leg, I had to learn to get around, so I was very present in my body in a way I had never been. I had to learn coordination, flexibility, stamina, balance....I wouldn't be a dancer if I hadn't lost my leg."

Cole says that her first priority was putting on a quality show. "I didn't set out to teach people," she notes. "I want people to come to the show and I want to move their spirit."

KickstART2 artistic director Geoff McMurchy says that like Cole, the people involved in the fest want to make art for art's sake. Their work might be just as influenced by their physical and mental realities as it is by their religious beliefs or cultural roots. "Equality seekers" want those with disabilities to be integrated in the arts world and to have their work judged on its own merits. In other words, these are artists first and foremost.

"People with disabilities have an interesting perspective, and the kind of work we like to present reflects that; through their art they offer different perspectives on the human condition," McMurchy explains on the line from his office. He says it's about time people with disabilities established their own place and voice within the cultural realm. He admits, though, that the term disability art itself is sometimes problematic.

"It's a tricky line," McMurchy says. "The terminology is an ongoing thing. I cringe at the word challenged or heroic."

But then, he also cringes at expressions like freak show, which one local critic used to describe Britain's CandoCo Dance Company, which consists of disabled and able-bodied artists, when it performed at the inaugural KickstART in 2001.

"That was a rude awakening," says McMurchy, a quadriplegic since 1977. "It really spoke to the need for what we're doing....If he didn't happen to like the work, fine. But the disability stuff comes afterward."

There's plenty of other fresh work on offer during the festival, including comedy by the U.K.'s Nasty Girls troupe, which according to its press material was formed "when frustrated, bitter and cynical disabled/deaf women got together to take the piss out of anything that annoyed them"; stone sculpture by Vancouver Island artists Alistair Green and Garry Curry, who are both quadriplegic after they were in separate car crashes in 1991; and acoustic folk and blues by Jeff Standfield, who is partially paralyzed because of a childhood virus that damaged his spine. There are workshops in mask-making, movement, storytelling, and choir. (More details are at Then there is Extraordinary Lives, Extraordinary Art, an exhibition featuring the work of more than 20 artists that runs from tonight (September 9) to September 23.

Emma Kivisild, who's cocurating the show with Sima Elizabeth Shefrin, says that the two went after pieces that convey what it's like to live with a disability but that don't exude victimhood.

"We don't want, 'Oh, isn't it amazing; they're cripples yet they can paint,' " Kivisild says in a phone interview. "There's fantastic art in this show. These people might have physical or mental liabilities, but art is what they've chosen to do."

Themes touch on everything from poverty to catharsis to the bureaucracy surrounding medical marijuana. Among other installations, look for the bright hues of painter Neville Grey's shoes; the use of playing cards in Dominic Featherston's multimedia pieces; and the experimental art of Robert Jackson, which incorporates Plexiglas, copper, and LED lights.

No matter what their medium, the KickstART2 artists have something to say--and it just might surprise you.

The KickstART2 Festival of Disability Arts and Culture runs at the Roundhouse Community Centre next Thursday to Sunday (September 16 to 19).