Monday, June 14, 2010

RETRO JESSIE: Art and Disability [June 2008]

In the Press
June 2, 2008 (yup, 2 years ago!)This in another “in the press” week for Jessie. A radio interview about the upcoming Propeller Dance performance at the National Arts Centre 4th Stage and a TV interview. Propeller Dance is one of the performing groups that Jessie belongs to (the other being Dandelion Dance Company). Propeller is an all-abilities/integrated dance company that includes persons with a wide range of abilities—including those with intellectual and physical disabilities)

Jessie has had her fair share of press, when I look back at it, for all her dancing and performing, and she has an uncanny ability to speak about what moves her. I forget, sometimes, just how articulate she can be. There is a proud Mom factor here, but also, when I step back, a wonder at what she reveals. That she speaks from the heart and somehow finds the words to express her joy and her intention. She blows interviewers away and absolutely loves the attention.

The Mom Factor
The Mom factor here tries to deflate her getting too used to it. But also needs to step back to let her enjoy the limelight and remember that as others listen to her, she is breaking down barriers and opening doors for all people with disabilities. She speaks from the heart, and when others listen they stop and wonder at all the spirit and understanding that exists in her heart and head and maybe, just maybe, stop to think about their preconceptions about persons with intellectual disabilities. There is so much there for us to learn from. Jessie is just one voice (of all the voices that we tend to discount), and maybe her voice opens up doors for other voices to be heard.

The Circle Widens . . .
. . . and Jessie is on a high, even this morning as she gets ready for school. I drove her this morning, because she was late and because she has another performance tonight. And in the car she smiled and said “I am so excited about tonight!” Another performance would just exhaust me. But she is excited! That performing part of her certainly comes from Dan, not me! And she just exudes life on stage. And joy and a certain generosity of spirit that catapults energy across the stage and out into the audience. Tonight she and the group perform Underground Wonder —a piece that she has choreographed and I am looking forward to seeing that. In her own words, “it’s about living in darkness underground, caught in the cold and the snow and then breaking free so each of our colours, our beingness can emerge and greet the world.” She does go deep sometimes!

Opening Up Vistas . . . Painting with a New Palette
The Propeller Dance performing group has opened up vistas for her and has given her a space to work with other performers and to create and to perform from her inner sense of joy. For me, the Propeller Dance classes and performing group has opened up a whole area of my heart that makes me look at the world differently.

It also generates a measure of anger, when I look at what an amazing performer she is and how much that is her passion and how the “regular” channels (school) cannot shift the elitist attitude that constricts what is valued to only those who fall into the “established” palette of value. While drama has always been a strength for Jessie, she was not allowed to apply to the high school for the arts (we don’t take kids like her—i.e., kids with an intellectual disability), nor was she allowed to apply for the drama focus program at her own high school —because she didn’t have university or college level English (one of the prerequisites).

What then, or how then, do we foster the passion and strengths of each of our students? And in the arts, of all places, where seeing and being outside the box is often the norm and the place from which many create? This continues to frustrate me, although you think I’d be able to let it go. I can’t, for some reason. BUT, am so grateful for all the opportunities outside school that the community offers for individuals like Jessie and others who don’t fit the mould. She is also lucky to be living at this time and in this place where new arts groups and opportunities are growing and where the wider community is opening up and making room for artistic expression for those with disabilities, who in turn are changing the environment in which we all create.

Connecting to Our Deeper Selves
We connect to our deeper selves through art and performance. To a deep sense of love and laughter and joy and pain. To a celebration of just breathing, of turning in a chair and flying with our arms through the woven ties that sometimes bind us to the ground and to each other and, if we watch and listen with our hearts, to a certain freedom that allows us to fly beyond the lies and the pretences.

Okay. Then there is the other side of our experience. This part tells you that it is all about people. Tis people, tis people, tis people. Jessie also loves to sing. She is a wonderful performer on that front as well. But she cannot, and I mean this seriously, with all the love that a mother has, she cannot sing on key and only recently has managed to keep a beat. By her own admission (through tears, when listening to a tape she made with friends) “why does my voice sound so wrong when theirs is so right?).

So. We have a child who, over the years, has belonged to a number of school and church choirs and who absolutely loves to sing! She stands on stage and it’s hard to take your eyes off her because she exudes joy and her whole body sings with her (if you can get past the off-key part...and usually we hope that the choir is big enough that most people won’t notice that). But there is no doubt that she sings off key. Really off-key.

And Yet . . .
And yet, and yet....the choir and voice director at her school asked her to join the voice program! Jessie came home from school one day to tell me this with pride. I was sure that she a) got it wrong or b) the choir/voice teacher was just being kind and thoughtful. But when we were choosing classes for next year, the high-needs coordinator at school reiterated that yes, Mrs. B thought it would be wonderful if Jessie took the voice/choir class. I smiled and nodded. Jessie beamed! And it is a curiosity to me that the school makes it impossible for her to pursue her passion (and what she is really good at), but will make is possible for her to pursue a passion where she has little talent. Go figure.

1 comment:

Lianna said...

I want EVERYONE in this world to read this post. The contrast between Jessie's ability and the defined boundaries that "regular channels" put before Jessie, is the blaring image of how I see the world at large, these days.

This has nothing to do with me feeling angry or even sad that my son has Down syndrome, or that the world can be an unjust place. It feels like a fundamental wrong is being done for people who have talent like Jessie, but are not allowed to pursue and further develop it.

Who puts these boundaries in place and keeps them there? Why is it so important? Until Gabriel entered our lives, I just never recognized these lines in the sand.

Thankfully, there are people like Mrs. B, as well as your friends, who can share Jessie's love, passion and talent (Propeller Dance, Dandelion Dance Company) so that people, like us, can feel it, too. Pure and simple: joy.