Wheelchair dancer, Peabody create music from motion

April 01, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

With a subtle flip of the wrists, Charlene Curtiss sends herself gliding backward in a smooth arc across the polished floor of a rehearsal hall at the Peabody Institute.

"If I'm a non-disabled dancer, I can't get this kind of glide on my feet," she says, sweeping back.

"Or a spin like this," the dancer adds, her low-slung chair performing a pirouette around the axis of its skinny bicycle tires, as she lifts an arm in balletic emphasis.

You begin to understand how Ms. Curtiss, 41, can say the wheelchair most people would consider limiting has been a "liberating" artistic instrument.

Indeed, she likens wheelchair dance to "taking flight," and says she has greater movement and speed in her chair than any dancer limited by movement of legs alone.

And tomorrow in the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall, in collaboration with composer Geoff Wright, Ms. Curtiss will take another artistic stride: transforming her body and chair into a literal musical instrument.

Her modern dance movements, registered by electronic sensors and transmitted to a computer, will produce the principal elements of Dr. Wright's world-premiere piece, "Instrument of Balance and Grace."

"Think about it just like you would a score for violin. Every time she moves, she can make one of these sounds come out," says Dr. Wright, director of Computer Music and the Computer Music Consort at Peabody.

The unique collaboration, which also includes technical input from engineers at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University, highlights the first of three weekend concerts in "25 Years of Looking to the Future." The conference, which began last night with a critics panel discussion, celebrates the silver anniversary of the Peabody Electronic and Computer Music Department.

"This is a field where you end up explaining yourself a lot. To many people, a computer is what balances their checkbook, not a musical instrument," jokes Darren Otero, a Peabody grad who is production coordinator of the weekend series.

Friday's concert includes a second dance by Ms. Curtiss, with non-disabled partner JoAnne Petroff. The weekend also includes Saturday performance by the SONOR chamber ensemble from the University of California, San Diego, and a Sunday concert including world premieres by composer John Cage.

"One of the underlying themes of this conference is how technology allows an artist to do something that they can't do otherwise," says Dr. Wright.

At 17, Ms. Curtiss, a high school athlete, lost most movement in her legs after a fall from defective uneven parallel bars. For years, after high school graduation in Kennewick, Wash., and through Eastern Washington University, in Cheney, Wash., she got around on braces and crutches, refusing a wheelchair as ungainly and limiting.

But in 1974, while swimming competitively in the National Wheelchair Competition at Eastern, Ms. Curtiss attended the track events, and was astounded at the speed and agility of wheelchair racers.

"It was wheelchair athletes who insisted that the design of chairs be changed," she explains, recounting her subsequent decision to buy a lightweight chair and get into racing. (A conventional chair might weigh 50 pounds, compared to her dance chairs that weigh about 20 pounds.)

"I did two marathons, and I thought that was quite enough, thank you," she jokes.

Enter the dance -- or more correctly, re-enter. As a teen, she had taken ballet and enjoyed popular dancing.

"I had danced in high school, but it really had gone out of my life for years. Then I began fooling around with dance movements at races, really as just a moment of entertainment," recalls Ms. Curtiss, who lives in the Seattle area. A six-week visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1975 kindled an interest in the rhythms of South American music, which she tried to interpret with movements in her chair.

She found the key to the new possibilities in controlling the "wheelie," the lifting of her chair's front wheels, which makes spinning and other dancelike movements possible. Her special chairs put the center of gravity directly over the rear axle to make tilting effortless -- in fact, it is easy to tip all the way over.

"Actually, falling out of the chair is something I put into a lot of dances. It challenges that whole language of being 'wheelchair-bound,' "she notes, demonstrating with a graceful roll across the hardwood floor and a deft return to the chair.

Ms. Curtiss' dancing competed with a law career, however, as she entered Gonzaga University law school in 1975 and became successful public defender. She got truly serious about dance only in 1988, and two years ago gave up law to dance, choreograph and teach full-time. She also married Richard Roth, an environmental geologist.

Intrigued by what he'd heard in a National Public Radio report about Ms. Curtiss, Peabody's Dr. Wright says he sent "spies" out to attend a performance in Seattle to find out: "Is it real dance?"

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