Thursday, March 29, 2018

Celebrating Arts & Disability in Asia Pacific

I recently had the pleasure to attend the 2018 Arts & Disability International Conference and True Colours Festival in Singapore. The event, presented by UNESCO and the Nippon Foundation, was organized by VSA Singapore in partnership with the National Arts Council Singapore. It was quite a celebration of Asian Pacific artists with disabilities and featured artists from Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, India, China, and Micronesia, as well as Canada, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia.

One of the takeaways for me was this definition of creativity: Creativity is taking something that exists and turning it into something that doesn’t. If you think about an artist like Picasso, he took the techniques used for painting realism and created a new form, cubism. One of the groups that fits that description is the Digital Orchestra of Drake Music Scotland. They play music using such apps and equipment as ThunbJam, SoundBeam, Brainfingers, and Wowee. I was amazed by the vast capabilities of these digital resources and know that the argument “Is this orchestral music?” will soon be as active as the “Is a photograph art?” conversation of several years ago. You can hear one of their compositions, a tribute to a band member who has passed away, in the video below:

Here I am trying out one of the Sound Beam instruments during the Drake Music Scotland presentation.

Another takeaway was given to me by Alirio Zavarce of No Strings Attached, Australia: Be open to all possibilities, inside in and outside out. Be true to the art form, but flexible in your approach and methodology. You have one job. Make it look good. And look good indeed did their world premiere of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” a multimedia journey through memory and memory loss. There was also a very touching work in progress presented by Very Special Theatrics Singapore and No Strings Attached, “My Home is Not a Shell.” This piece was developed in response to the invasion of their tropical island city by numerous glass and metal high-rise buildings of commerce and finance. Conceived and developed over a 23-hour rehearsal process, the story was well-developed and very touching. I could relate to their sorrow as I also mourn the loss of my native Austin to the facades of progress and finance.

My traveling companion Jeannine and I with Alirio on the first day of the conference

A final takeaway was shared by Adrian Anantawan, a violinist I have had the opportunity to perform with through Inclusive by Design with VSA Massachusetts: The greatest accommodation is acceptance. This was evidenced every day in every way at the True Colours Festival Village, Concert and Conference. There was so much more food for my senses than I can mention here including Epic Arts Cambodia, Kate Hood of Raspberry Ripple, and Slow Label Japan. I am lingering in my memories, refreshing at the well of creativity. Thank you Singapore for showing me and the world your True Colours.

One of my real pleasures was getting to know Sokny Onn and the Epic Arts Cambodia dance troupe.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

VSA Texas at Library Live: Veterans Edition!

Hey all, Eric here to tell you about our next concert at the Carver Branch of Austin Public Library coming up this Saturday, March 24th, from 2:00-4:00 PM! We are particularly excited about this upcoming concert because it will feature Veteran musicians, most of whom have participated in our Distinguished Artist Veterans program. Here's a bit more about the musicians playing this Saturday:

Our opening act Rick Milisci is a U.S. Army Veteran who grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas. His song “People Just Need Love” was featured in our 2017 Veteran music compilation The Re-Integration Project {Sounds} which you can download here. His music has a bluesy vibe while his vocal delivery has a raw yet soulful appeal.

Hope in the Day is a duo featuring Kris Tidwell and Steven Clarkson who have combined their separate passions for music and poetry into a unique sound. Kris recently completed one of our Veteran writing classes in Austin and read several poems with accompaniment from Steven on mandolin at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic. In their performances Kris reads original poetry over a soundscape created by Steven's electric mandolin run through a variety of ambient effects. The result is nothing short of psychedelic and thought-provoking.

David Romero is a regular at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic known for his burgeoning collection of rare folk instruments and heartfelt covers of traditional folk tunes with originals in the mix. He is frequently accompanied by his wife Ann Marie on flute, and they usually get the crowd to sing along! David is heavily influenced by English, Irish, Scottish, and American folk music, and he sings in Spanish as well. His song “Absence Inside” was also featured in our 2017 Veteran music compilation The Re-Integration Project {Sounds}.

David and Ann Marie Romero perform a song at the Lion and Pirate.

Our final performer Matthew Owen Williams joins us all the way from Florida for this concert! Matt is a Retired Army Chaplain and one of the founding members of Vet Church, an outreach to those who struggle with hurt, anger, depression and pain. As a singer/songwriter Matt has written and recorded a single, an EP, and a full-length record. His lyrics are witty and honest, and he sings with a raw passion. He travels around the country playing music, offering encouragement, and instilling hope to other Veterans and their communities. His performance is one you won't want to miss!

So come out to the Carver Branch (1161 Angelina Street, Austin, TX 78702) and support Veteran musicians this Saturday afternoon! The concert is free, doors open at 1:30 PM, show starts at 2:00 PM. You can RSVP, get updates, and invite your friends to our Facebook event page here. See you there!

Flyer for March 24th Veterans concert at the Carver Branch of Austin Public Library

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Spring Forward and Create Art!

I don’t know about you, but this time change has been hard to deal with this year. I just don’t want to get out of bed in the mornings! But the chirping birds, the promise of warmer weather and longer evenings in the sunshine makes me remember that it is time to get up and that the day is going to be great.

"Happy Mountains" yarn painting by April Sullivan

With the name April, I bet you can guess Spring is my favorite time of year. It is time to start new projects and finish old ones. For me, that means making more art. If it means the same for you, then I have some opportunities coming up that you might want to get involved in.

At VSA Texas, we have some great new calls for art out and we are looking for artists to participate. There’s something for everyone in this list!

Ground Floor Theatre Gallery – Austin, TX
April 3-30, 2018
We are having a one month exhibition of local Austin artists with disabilities at this theatre lobby in East Austin. I have four artists confirmed, but there is probably room for 1-2 more. Just let me know if you are interested. This one is coming up quick!

SPRING Mobile Art Exhibition – Bass Concert Hall Gallery – 2nd Floor – Austin, TX
May-August 2018
DEADLINE: April 9, 2018
This call for art is specifically for Texas seniors, age 65 and up. We have space for wall-hanging work in this exhibit. So if you are an older artist, show us what you got!

Photo from last year’s Mobile Art Exhibition at Austin Bergstrom International Airport

9th Annual Distinguished Artist Veterans Exhibit – Cultural Activities Center – Howard Gallery – Temple, TX
June-July 2018
DEADLINE: April 17, 2018
We have space for 2D and 3D work in this large gallery in Temple. We invite all Veterans with disabilities and Wounded Warriors in Texas to enter this call for art.

Howard Gallery at the Cultural Activities Center in Temple

WEST – West Austin Studio Tour – AGE of Central Texas Building Lawn – Austin, TX
May 12-13 and May 19-20
We are an official stop on the WEST tour hosted by Big Medium and we are looking for artists with disabilities to come out with their tents and artwork to sell on the lawn. We have an indoor location secured in case of rain. If you have always wanted to be on this annual city-wide art tour but couldn’t afford the fee, we offer a low-cost way to get involved.

2018 West Austin Studio Tour logo

So as you see, there are plenty of ways you can get your art out in the world this Spring with VSA Texas. You can always check our calls for art on our website or just contact me at I’m always planning something new and I want to see what you are creating.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thoughts on Romantic Disability

What makes a disabled person into a romantic figure in literature, films, plays, musicals, and other means of entertainment? What draws us to the underdog and makes us love them romantically? I haven’t a clue as to what the human heart likes, desires, or is conditioned to, but this is the subject of my blog. I have no scientific research behind this but would like to start a conversation. I watch a lot of movies and still can’t manage to cram everything in but got to thinking about the romance in figures that we see, that we (me) are attracted to:

Sketch of Quasimodo in "Hunchback of Notre Dame"

  • In "Hunchback of Notre Dame" I wanted so much for Quasimodo to get the girl Esmeralda, but I didn’t see how that was going to work out in my mind because the great looking guy usually wins.
  • In the film "Dracula" the one with Gary Oldman, Vlad the Impaler turns very unusual with pale skin and weird eyes and crawls up buildings but has unrelenting lure for the heroine. Humm.
  • In the TV series "Beauty and the Beast" Vincent has a mane of hair all over him but still has human qualities, and he is the love interest.
  • In the Disney film "Beauty and the Beast" Vincent again has a temper, looks like a lion, isn’t exactly handsome, but we all still believe that Belle will fall in love with him, and we all hope that she will.
  • In Bronte’s "Jane Eyre" Rochester’s disabilities softens his somewhat arrogant nature and Jane stays with the man she loves.
  • In "The Shape of Water" an amphibious creature and a janitor fall in love. I haven’t seen the movie, but the romantic lead figure looks appealing, and again a scaly character pines for a woman.
  • In "Avatar" the alien creatures have big fangs, large ears, large eyes. These folks are covered in scales, feathers, yellow eyes and so much more, yet we believe in the romance. Why is that?
  • In "Forrest Gump" Lieutenant Dan is a feisty alcoholic, and yet we still love him and find him attractive, even without two legs. Maybe this is due to good casting?
  • In "The Station Agent" the protagonist was born with dwarfism, has a sarcastic temper, but a warm heart when he wants to use it. He shows sentimental sides and has affection for his female counterpart and she reciprocates.

So I didn’t do massive research into this topic, but it brought up the notion that movies, books, dance, etc. can bring us into the evolution of who we love and are attracted to. Maybe Hollywood and filmmakers do know how to create love stories using people with disabilities, they just don’t tap into the reality nearly as much as they could without using costumes to disguise it. I know there is a mile-long list of films involving people with disabilities, but these folks are usually very attractive according to modern standards.

What would have happened if Princess Leia fell for Jabba the Hutt in "Star Wars?" That would be something.

Is this because we don’t want a hero who is physically imperfect?

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Getting in Touch with Body Shift

Hello, friends! Body Shift project coordinator Olivia here to share a little about our recent class happenings. The February Body Shift: Elements class was taught by guest instructor, Brandon Gonzalez. Brandon and I have danced together and in similar circles for nearly 20 years now. We both have a deep appreciation and natural inclination toward dancing from the inside out. Brandon has traveled the world studying, practicing, teaching, and performing as an improviser. And, in an effort to offer varied perspectives on somatics and movement training, I invited him to share some of his extensive body knowledge with our Body Shifters.

Brandon called his two-part class “Touching Form.” His description of the focus of the class was as follows: What is the feeling of our contact? How is our dialogue resonating and taking shape? Inspired by elements from contact improvisation we’ll find pathways that bridge our sensory perceptions to the dances we create. Flexing our muscles of attention, we’ll investigate how we move and imagine together. Let’s discover new ways of being “in touch.”

Brandon called on Nita Little’s work with ‘attention’ for his first class. There was no literal physical contact. Instead we started with noticing the sensations generated from our own attention and internal awareness. We then layered on giving attention to a partner and noticing how we attend to ourselves as well as how our partner was attending to us and so on. By the end of the class there was a palpable connection – a sort of ‘touch’ – through the negative space between people. For his second class, Brandon focused our awareness on the fascia, or connective tissue, that wraps throughout, supports, and gives the literal shape to our bodies. We began with a solo of reaching and finding the fullest range of our joints, bouncing, and dragging our hands across our own bodies to experience the elastic quality of the fascia. We then worked with various partners in the same way but this time exploring the sliding and gliding of our partners' tissues. This developed into a more free form contact duet that drew attention to the reciprocal relationship of our individual nervous systems through the webbing of the connective tissue. The initial awkwardness of coming in contact with someone you may not know very well was mitigated by setting the focus on the anatomical structure of the body. Regardless of spasticity, rigidity, or other perceived limitations, everyone in the group was able to participate equally and in their own way.

With all that said…touch can be controversial. How we are led into physical contact can stir up different emotional and physical responses based on each person’s past relationship with touch. Some people may be touched a lot when getting assistance with their morning routine, eating, transferring, being exercised…all moments that are potentially quite intimate and yet are often executed in a more clinical or impersonal way. Some people may have a negative association with touch because of past abuse. Perhaps someone might have a particularly sensitive nervous system that gets overstimulated by certain kinds of touch or maybe they have medical concerns around germs that could have a very real impact on their immune system.

And, yet, touch can also be calming and playful. It can be intimate and personal without being sexual. It can be a powerful tool for getting to know yourself and other people on a deeper or maybe just different level than we experience in talking. In the DanceAbility method we work a lot with the idea of dance as a non-verbal conversation. Instead of learning steps or pre-determined choreography, the dancers generate movements in response to sensations they have inside their own body as well as information that they get from communicating non-verbally with their partner(s). Because of all the reasons people may be intimidated by touch I sometimes shy away from teaching contact work in a mixed-ability/mixed-level class and choose to work in relationship through space. That said, it can be limiting and isolating to avoid touch. Many of us rely heavily on our eyes to navigate through our interactions with people and the environment. For people who are visually impaired or blind, to ‘see’ is to sense with their whole body and allowing for touch allows for more information to be shared between partners. When someone is non-mobile or has limited mobility, touch can give access to traveling through space without being forced or manipulated or simply pushed around. Essentially touch is the most fundamental way we can connect with everyone regardless of their unique physical or mental characteristics and ensure that no one is isolated.

The video below shares a moment from the free dance portion of a recent Elements class:

During the closing circle of Brandon’s second class the participants expressed a sense of calm, joyfulness, and gratitude at being given the space to explore the systems of the body experientially and the deep listening that accompanies such exploration. I immediately thought of a quotation from bodyworker Deane Juhan, “We can never touch just one thing; we always touch two things at the same instant, an object and ourselves, and it is in the simultaneous interplay between these two contiguities that the internal sense of self—different from both the collection of body parts and the collection of external objects—is tactile surface is not only the interface between my body and the world, it is the interface between my thought processes and my physical existence as well. By rubbing up against the world, I define myself to myself.”

I hope that you all will come and dance with us in the Elements class next month. I will be teaching on March 10th and will host our spring dance jam on March 24th. Please feel free to email me with questions. And if you are new to dance or new to dance improvisation/somatics, you are welcome to join us as an observer before diving in.

Elements class takes place every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month from 2:30-4:30pm at the Town Lake YMCA in the large group exercise room on the first floor. No gym membership is required to attend. Open to adults age 16 and up; all abilities and experience levels. No registration necessary and fee for class is on a sliding scale from $5-$20, cash or check accepted. See you at the Y!