Stephen wanted us to meet in the morning at the Come to the Edge rehearsal in Hamilton, but Frank was stuck in his apartment by an elevator outage. A moment that I could navigate using the stairs illustrated the barrier I rarely consider having to overcome. We meet that afternoon at Stephen’s apartment instead.
Will Walsh – here are some stories gained from interviewing members of Imagining Possibilities project.
Dancing through the Edge
Making Radical Inclusion a Reality
Frank travels between New York and Toronto for his art. He once had to re-engineer his wheelchair to fit it on a plane. He tells us about the time a wealthy boyfriend took him to an expensive restaurant in New York. It had no wheelchair accessible bathrooms. Frank demanded that the waiter comp their bill. When he finished his speech, he says, the other diners clapped. Then he used the bathroom across the street. That wasn’t the point. It was a matter of principle.
He tells us about that other time when he crawled up two flights of stairs to get to a leather bar in Toronto. By chance he met a dance company. They went onto work on a piece called The Caretaker. Their studio at Lansdowne was also inaccessible, and the other dancers would carry his wheelchair. That was how he got noticed first by the Cleaveland Ballet, and then by his teachers in New York. Twenty years later he would find himself in a professional integrated dance company based out of Ottawa. When lead dancer got sick—Frank was the understudy—he learned the choreography in two hours.
Frank talks about the barriers to getting around. He makes it sound like other people get in the way as often as not. “It’s amazing how only TTC drivers see me in front of this ramp,” he says, recounting how cyclists weaved around him as he waited to get on a streetcar. It wasn’t any better in the gay bars: “‘Move. Move.’ It’s not, ‘excuse me,’ it’s ‘move’ or ‘it.’ Or you’re talked about like ‘it.’ Like an object. You know. Like you’re just there. And people don’t even—They don’t see me. They don’t see me.”
“‘MOVE. MOVE.’ IT'S NOT, ‘EXCUSE ME,’ IT'S ‘MOVE’ OR ‘IT.’ OR YOU'RE TALKED ABOUT LIKE ‘IT.’ LIKE AN OBJECT. YOU KNOW. LIKE YOU'RE JUST THERE. AND PEOPLE DON'T EVEN—THEY DON'T SEE ME. THEY DON'T SEE ME.”
He continues: “when I look at my life right now, when I look into so-and-so—and this goes back to me thinking, ‘am I feeling sorry for somebody?’—I become thankful all of a sudden for every ounce of what I have in this moment. Just because somehow I think that my quality of life is somehow better than theirs. But isn’t that a frigging cop-out? Because if I start getting into that mentality then that starts leading to the Robert Latimer shit—where Robert Latimer killed his severely disabled daughter with cerebral palsy who was mute, because he felt that her quality of life was just too much, that she must be murdered—how dare I say that?”
He tells me this is the true lesson of inclusion; of the able-bodied world thinking that others don’t have a right to exist because they’ve suffered too much. He tells me that those who are too afraid to fall in love with people like him might be missing out on something magical. He tells me that without disability we would lose a culture—a whole way of being.
He tells me that while the world has opened up to him in many ways, it is not always so for his nonverbal colleagues. Even within disability communities they can face isolation:
“Moreso than the rest of us who use power chairs… So Propeller Dance, and Dancing Wheels, and other companies, can easily find people like me. You know. But somebody who has a complex disability, they don’t get out the same way the rest of us do.” He likens it to the 70s, before accessible transit, when people in wheelchairs were driven around in horse trailers. “I feel personally that for people with complex disabilities, we are back then,” he said. “We are that far back. So how are they supposed to have access to the disability arts movement, if we don’t even get to find them?”
“A lot of times, we’re… they miss us.”
THERE ARE NO DEFORMITIES AMONG HIS GROUP, RATHER “POSSIBILITIES AND SHAPES THAT CAN ONLY BE COMPLETED WITH WENDY, OR WITH RONNIE, OR WITH ROBERT...”
He talks about Aiding Dramatic Change in Development, the group organizing Come to the Edge. What would it be like if they didn’t exist, he asks:
“Where would people like them go? To play like this. To be a part of the theatre realm. Whatever it is. For me to go in and teach a dance class, and go in and talk, ‘stage right,’ ‘stage left,’ ‘windows,’ ‘negative space,’ ‘positive space,’ all those things. For most people—most able-bodied dancers and people in the professional realm—would look at it and go, ‘it’s so basic,’ …But it’s not so basic when you live your life like this and you don’t know what the possibilities are as a dancer.”
There are no deformities among his group, rather “possibilities and shapes that can only be completed with Wendy, or with Ronnie, or with Robert… each person—if you’re looking at it from a dancer’s perspective—even from my perspective, as a power chair dancer—you see the pallet, where maybe a stand up dancer wouldn’t.”
He recounts a moment when he played the piano at Daniels Spectrum and watched one of his fellow performers dance. The improvisation, he told me, is his favourite part of the shows. Every time he feels like he’s learned something new.
Frank then tells me about another dream: to one day bring some of the women from his group to Canoe—the restaurant in Toronto’s financial district—as a piece of performance art, and have able-bodied men in tuxedoes elegantly feed them. “…in front of a group of typical Canoe customers. Just so they could experience something totally outside their realm of thinking. And so that those ladies would experience something… I think it would be a good thing… For them. For the ladies. Because usually in that realm, in that world, they’re always about politeness. Whatever it is that realm is about. So you take someone like [my colleague] Christine, or someone else who’s never worn a beautiful gown, and you make that happen. You give them that. And it would—it’s just a part of the show. And of course there’s the beautiful food… You get to eat at Canoe. And we wouldn’t announce it. It would be sort of an inside thing. And it would just happen. And it would be immersive—like a flash performance—and it would be beautiful.”