The Dance of Diversity
On Invalidenstraße, a street demo challenges assumptions
The subway doors opened at Landstraße as passengers stepped out, and headed up the dusty stairwell toward Maxergasse. Construction at the Wien Mitte U-Bahn station had been going on for a decade, and jackhammers still echo off thick concrete walls.
On this hot day in late May, they were swallowed up by the energetic drumming coming from the street. "Wien Mitte. Moves the city," a billboard proclaimed. Today though, the city was moving all on its own, as an elderly man in baggy jeans and a thin, orange shirt made gleeful, pinwheel turns around a half-visible partner, who seemed to be sitting down, his blue eyes bright next to the faded red of the turban loosely wrapped around his head. The crowd shifted; he was dancing with a woman in a wheelchair. In fact, there were dozens of wheelchairs...
A chant rose up: "Diversity is beautiful! Long live diversity!" Even the construction workers on the 6th floor of the site were dancing to the beat of this street party. Like heat waves rising from asphalt, this crowd radiated enthusiasm.
Right at that moment, an outstretched hand at waist level beckoned me. It was Alexandra Bauer, a 21-year-old woman from Munich, also in a wheelchair, from an astrocytoma, a star-shaped, benign brain tumour diagnosed at the age of three and treated with a radioactive implant that saved her life. She was left, however, with bilateral paralysis and epilepsy.
But this doesn’t stop her from dancing. Since 2010, she has been part of an international dance troupe known as DanceAbility, which had staged the demonstration that day with the troupe Theatre of the Oppressed. The setting was Invalidenstraße, beside the station, named after a poorhouse established in 1727 that Emperor Joseph II later turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers. It closed in 1909 to make room for city housing.
The street demonstration was the crowning event of a week of workshops on "arts for social change". A top goal: to rename Invalidenstraße to something that doesn’t trap the handicapped in a world apart. "Language influences reality," was the motto on their pamphlets. But reality, in turn, can also change language. If words create atmosphere, the setting of human interaction, language is both the beginning, but also the end of discrimination. Words are symbols of thought, made manifest in the reality of human existence.
"It’s all about attitudes. Most people feel uncomfortable around people with special needs", Alex said. "When Im out in the city most of the time, people don’t even speak with me. They look at me, and then immediately look away." What she wants is to be treated like a normal person.
The campaign wasn’t just about changing the name of a street. It was a platform for using dance and theatre to create another image of people with disabilities. "We want to show that although we have disabilities, we also have the will to live, to dance and play in the celebration of life. The more people get accustomed to seeing us, the easier it is for them to accept us."
A woman with long curly hair and a bright smile raised a megaphone. This was Vera Rebl, a choreographer, dancer and quality manager in Vienna who founded A.D.A.M. (Austrian DanceAbility Movement) and the Dance Gang, a dance company performing for children. Rebl is a bolt of flowing energy; she is also in a wheelchair.
I caught up with Vera on a mild, summer’s evening in August at Cafe Corbaci in the MuseumsQuartier where she was conducting a dance workshop for children at the Dschungel Theater during the last week of ImpulsTanz, a Vienna international dance festival.
DanceAbility uses the technique of contact improvisation pioneered by Alito Alessi 20 years ago for people with disabilities. According to choreographer Steve Paxton, it erases the assumed distinction between able/disabled.
"One of the issues [we] feel the need to raise is the way we are portrayed by the media," Rebl explained. "You see either people who are really suffering or athletic people in wheelchair marathons. You don’t see the ‘in-between’, like a teacher who uses a wheelchair." So DanceAbility uses "street interventions", performances for children, and workshops with "mixed-ability" dancing of a disabled person teamed up with an able one.
That is what happened on Invalidenstraße after a week of workshops by Susan Quick and Emery Blackwell, sponsored by the EU and Austrian programmes "Youth in Action", the WUK, and Respekt.net. During another performance, a man had come up to Rebl afterward and thanked her. "That was the first time I was allowed to look at your bodies," he said. "I was always taught that it wasn’t polite to look."
The sun was bearing down as the caravan performers turned onto Landstraßer Haupstraße where containers serving as temporary offices for the ÖBB travel centre narrowed the cobblestone street. Pedestrians were forced to mix with demonstrators rather reluctantly as they hesitated, annoyingly moving through the maze of wheelchairs, dancing and drums. Some children began to ask their mothers and fathers questions.
"Respect is to really see a person," Vera Rebl had said. "Sehen und gesehen werden," as the Austrians say. To be part of society, one must "see and be seen." What makes one person "normal" and another "invalid"? It’s hard to argue with dancing in the street.
Visit www.danceability.at for more information about weekly workshops on Fridays at 17:00.