For choreographer Heidi Latsky, disability is no disadvantage.
Choreographer Heidi Latsky has spent her life cultivating self-awareness and working to reconcile the mind-body split. She performed as a principal dancer for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company between 1987 and 1993. In 2001, she started her own company. Five years later, Heidi Latsky Dance hired a number of disabled dancers, putting the company at the forefront of a movement now called “physically-integrated dance.” But Latsky says her work is about ability, not disability.
Heidi Latsky: This is not a pity party. This is not sentimental. I work with people because I find them exquisite, inside and out.
For someone so accomplished in dance, Heidi Latsky came to the form later than most. She was a timid teenager, who had gone to college young and was already most of the way through a psychology degree when a handsome disco dancer brought her toe-to-toe with her calling.
Latsky: We had so much fun, and we started winning competitions, and I loved when he would twirl me, and then dip me, and then he would start lifting me, and we started practicing. We started competing more, and I just, I fell in love with movement. And I had danced a little bit as a kid, but I was, again, very shy so it wasn't the kind of thing—it wasn't an outlet for me. And so when I graduated and I was only 19, I thought, “Okay, I'm going to take a year off and I want to horseback ride, and I want to ski, and I want to keep dancing, and I want to try it.” It was so challenging, and it was my body, and I felt like I had been such an academic in my head that I really needed to move out of my head and into my body.
In 1983, Latsky moved to New York study dance, but struggled with teachers who told her she wasn't good enough and a body that seemed to sabotage her progress at every turn.
Latsky: My body was always my enemy. In so many ways, I saw it as I had this horrible relationship with it because I was injured all the time. Also, when I started dancing, I did not have a dancer body. I was disproportionate. I had really huge thighs, and I was really small on top. And I'm small, so I was sculpting my body. I was trying to change it, but in the process, I was getting injured, because I was dancing when I was much older and pushing my body to do things that it really didn't know how to do. I was always retraining, having to understand better, “Why? What?”
Seeking answers paid off. Not only does Latsky now have a profound understanding of her own body; she's learned how to help others connect with theirs. It was while teaching a Movement for Actors class at the School for Film and Television in the late '90s that Latsky developed her eponymous teaching practice, rooted in alignment and breathing-based exercises. And it was through this work that she connected with the woman who would become her muse—the late performance artist, Lisa Bufano.
Latsky: She had no lower legs and no fingers. But she was one of the most beautiful movers, beautiful performer. And I remember watching her and thinking, “Oh my god.” And it gelled for me. I love a performer who's really vulnerable but really fierce. And she was that. Without any training, she had this kind of, “I'm going to do this,” but also so open. And that's really hard to achieve, and especially if you've been a trained dancer, it's kind of knocked out of you, ‘cause it's not always taught. You're so… You have to get your leg a certain height, you have to work so hard on the athleticism of it that sometimes people forget, “Well, who am I as the artist?” Which means, “Who am I? Can I dare to be vulnerable?” That's hard. She had it.
And so, too, Latsky says, has every one of the dancers she's worked with since.
Latsky: Anybody who has a disability, who's never danced before and has the balls to actually join a professional dance company and perform, is going to have that. I think they're going to have that already. And they have. Anybody who's wanted to work with me has had that kind of quality. My job is to pull out their unique virtuosity. What is it they do physically that we can't do? That I can't do?
But bringing disabled dancers into her company presented a steep learning curve that Latsky continues to work through, one conversation at a time.
Latsky: I knew nothing about disability, and so I had to learn from them, “Well, what is appropriate? What's the right terminology?” You don't say “handicapped,” you don't say “differently-abled,” all that. It's a constant back and forth, because it is a complicated relationship. I am not disabled, right? And I'm leading a physically-integrated company. And so, my relationship with everyone in that company is important. For instance, my non-disabled dancers sometimes become invisible. It's kind of interesting, right? So, when we're performing, the critics don't see them, because they're so fixated on something that's different. When I was in Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, when I first joined the company, Lawrence Goldhuber was in that company. He was an unusually, really large man. You'd never see a big guy like that in a dance company. So he got so much attention. And I remember feeling like I was dancing so hard, so committed, and feeling like I wasn't being acknowledged. I wasn't being recognized. And he was, and I understand that syndrome, and I have that in my company now. Even post-performance talkbacks, everyone wants to talk to the disabled dancers. So some of my disabled dancers brought that up, and we started being more active about, “Okay, what happens when the audience is asking too many questions about disability, and we really want to talk about the art?” So we started devising ways to answer those questions, but then to move on so that everybody could participate.
AJC: So, when audiences really get it, how do you hope that they'll react?
Latsky: I think the best reactions are when people see how beautiful it is. And it doesn't become about disability. It just becomes about bodies in space and the beauty of what we're creating on stage.
But what they're creating on stage is also helping to redefine ideas of beauty in dance and beyond.