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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
Landscapes, dances and stories: preparing for New Zealand
Long time Foundation for Community Dance member Petra Kuppers has been awarded the first Caroline Plummer Fellowship in Community Dance at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Here Petra shares her thoughts as she sets out on her journey
On the day that I found out that I was to be the first Caroline Plummer Fellow in Community Dance at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and to work for six months with disabled and non-disabled community dancers on New Zealand's South Island, I won myself a little Maori pendant on Ebay. The small piece is shaped like a circle, with a wave inside, made out of bone, some polished, some left natural. Inset into it is a piece of abalone, or Paua shell. The seller told me that the design is called Koru, and that it represents the unfurling of new life, just as the New Zealand fern fronds unfurl as they grow. It is the sort of piece you would give a child or a friend going through positive change in their lives. This meeting between meaning, shape and legend has become to me a tangible inspiration as I research New Zealand culture, myths, cultures, and locations.

Once the pendant arrived from its long journey from New Zealand, I brought it to one of my dance workshops here in Rhode Island where I currently live and work, and shared it and the story behind its shape, and my reason for acquiring it with my dancers, who helped me to celebrate the generous gift I had received. I also gave my thanks to them: one of them had written one of the three recommendations that I sent to the University of Otago.

We are a group of disabled artists who met many times throughout 2004 as part of a disability culture project called Tracks, inspired by ideas of 'tracking', investigating the traces we leave in the countryside - footsteps of bi-pedals, the round marks of crutches, or the lines of wheels, small earth sculptures, and others markings that hold traces of our presence in our world. In this autumn workshop, we used the small New Zealand amulet as our main impetus for movement and creation. Sharing my delight at the amazing news of the fellowship, as well as the other happenings in our lives since we last met, we passed the pendant from hand to hand, feeling its contours and textures. And then we used the impetus of the pendant to create our own autumn amulets - we moved out into the nature park that we had chosen as our meeting place for this workshop.

Bathed in the crisp and golden fall light of New England, and surrounded by the stunning reds and yellows of the fall leaves, we each went and created a fall amulet for ourselves. We collected some of the offerings that the season had strewn across the paths, the woods and the lake of our location, and used the leaves, twigs and stones to create a shape that celebrated the year that was passing, and the change of seasons. We shared these small sculptures in a slow country walk from station to station, appropriate to our various disabilities and sensory access needs. Afterwards, we put a circle of chairs together and began the elaborate centerpiece of many of our meetings: a long and complex hand-dance. We began in a circle, our hands touching. Some of us stood and moved in and out, under and above the weaving arms and hands, the small touches, the songs and the improvised movement stories that emerged. The New Zealand pendant, the collected pine cones, small gourds, leaves, and twigs went on a journey from hand to arm to body to hand, and different textures, rhythms and sounds emerged as we worked in concentration. Together, we wove a dance, wove a connection between us, and wove ourselves into this rural space that isn't usually easily accessible for disabled people.

And thus I felt a first real connection to the project I will lead in New Zealand, and the words that I had written in my application came to life for me. I had proposed a project called Mappings. I wrote:

'Mapping engages our bodily skills, it asks us to locate ourselves in relation to the land and to others. Where am I? What do I move from? What are the forces that make my move possible? Who has moved here before, how did their movement affect this land, my future?

Gravity/Mythology
History/Sand
Concrete/Grass
Water/Bones
Skin/Blood
Kinesthesia/Exploration
Critique/Celebration
Emotion/Motion

Using dance, small temporary earth sculptures, creative writing and photography, Mapping will chart the energy of dance by disabled and non-disabled dancers. Together, we'll see how we all fit on the same page, on the same or different maps, and explore the borderlines of different map-legends. We'll see how we can map each other's movement onto our different bodies. Different cultures, different origins, different (body) languages: these will provide the vocabulary out of which we will choreograph and create.'

I spoke a bit more about this project in my video interview for the fellowship. The friendly and smiling interviewers had included Ralph Buck, the leader of the dance department, and the mother of Caroline Plummer, the young woman who created the foundation for this amazing fellowship through her love of community dance as she was living through her final years with cancer. In talking with them, I realized again the many connections between my current Tracks project, my previous work as a community dance leader, and the new project I was proposing for New Zealand.

In my imagination, I see a land which has only relatively recently been inhabited, a land which is still emerging new and fresh from volcanic activity, where Maori legends and Scottish sensibilities shape much of the common bi-cultural and bi-lingual environment. I had started dance theatre work in my home country, Germany, encountering many difficulties as a disabled woman at a time when dance was seen to be something only non-disabled bodies engaged in. I learned many tools of my trade in my ten years in Wales, another country with two languages, where I took the Certificate in Community Dance with the Laban Guild and Powys Dance. Anna Marie Taylor from the Adult Education Department at the University of Wales Swansea supported me to explore disability culture, create dance sessions with mental health system survivors, with people with mobility impairments, and, in hospices, with cancer survivors. It was in rugby-mad Wales that I learned the movements to the Maori Haka war dance of the All Blacks. My students in the Community Dance course at Manchester Metropolitan University helped me deepen my understanding of dance's diversity. Now, in the US, I live in another country that has been shaped by colonial contact and interracial conflict, but that also has breathtaking natural beauty, and that is (somewhat) more accessible to me as a disabled person.

I am sure that some of my romantic notions of New Zealand will be challenged, but I know that I can rely on two things that have remained the same in all the places where I danced: the generosity of people, and the love of movement. Next July, I will fly down under. I will take my Maori pendant. I will also take with me the big hug that one of the Tracks participants shared with me after the day in the fall workshop. She told me about her re-found love of touching: as a disabled person who doesn't look 'normate' she is deeply aware of the fear people have of her. Touch is one of the gifts of our dance.

The other thing I will take with me is a story about the land near where I will live in Dunedin: Ana Flores, a Cuban-American artist who came to visit one of my classes at Bryant University where I teach now, told me a story she found when she was working in New Zealand a few years back. In the volcanic land not far away there's a lake, and under that lake, a giant lies sleeping. The giant's breath moves the water and the land, lifting and sinking it gently. Now, when I worry about what will happen, what I will do, whether I'll be up to it, I think of this story, and know that dance will happen from there.

Petra Kuppers currently teaches at Bryant College, Rhode Island, USA and can be contacted at pkuppers@bryant.edu

The Community Dance Fellowship at the University of Otago was inspired by the vision and achievements of young Otago dance student, Caroline Plummer, who died from cancer in April 2003. It was made possible by a memorial trust set up by Caroline's parents to give ongoing life to her passionate belie in the power of dance as a medium for healing, education, cultural understanding and artistic expression.

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Animated: Winter 2005