DANCING TOWARD THE LIGHT
AXIS Dance Company, based
in Oakland, California, has played a pivotal role in creating "integrated
dance," a new dance form designed around performers with and without
disabilities. AXIS has performed across the US as well as in Europe
and the former Soviet Union. On June 22 in San Francisco AXIS presented
"The Ground, the Air and Places in Between," which included
the premiere of a work commissioned for the company by dance legend
Bill T. Jones. To celebrate this landmark disability dance event,
BENT interviewed Tom Metz and Michael Perreault about their experience
with an earlier AXIS piece, "Hidden Histories/Visible Differences."
at least The Dance, is about bodies. Even those classic "story"
ballets like Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet, the ones you either
swoon over or gag over, depending on your taste, are more about
the bodies that dance them than the stories they purport to tell.
which often makes no pretense at telling a story, is even more blatantly
about bodies. Bodies in the service of art, to be sure, but bodies
nonetheless. The painter uses paint, the choreographer uses bodies.
It's as simple as that.
ballet, modern dance, the great traditions, the great names:
Balanchine, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham.
They all try to tell us what the body can tell. You can have dance
on a bare stage, you can even have dance without music, but you
cannot have dance withoutbodies.
dancer's body. Up there on the stage, divorced from everyday
life, the dancer makes it easy for us to see his body as the Noble
Machine or the Peerless Organism; it's easy to see the dancer's
body as a divine emanation, if that's your bag. And come on, it's
OK to admit it: Dancers are sexy. Dance would lose half of its appeal
without that inherent sensual/erotic content. You love to watch
beautiful bodies in motion. It's exhilarating to see those beautiful
bodies in beautiful motion, to catch your breath at the mere notion
of what dancers can accomplish.
Look at the
male dancer, in action or in repose, captured in the books of
photographs so popular on gay coffee tables: The godlike torso and
fluid arms, the rump heroic, the basket. (And yes, once in a while
some photographer will reveal dance's ugly secretthe battered
feet of a Nureyev, saythat make it all possible. But in the
beautiful world of dance that's merely afootnote.)
are admired, often worshipped, sometimes fetishizedmen's
and women's alike. Dancers' bodies (despite their notoriously ruined
feet) are seen as something close to the classical ideal of beauty.
Flesh transcendent. What happens to these notions of beauty and
our assumptions about the unity of the dancer and the dance when
we watch disabled dancers?
"O body swayed
to music, O brightening glance/
How can we know the dancer from the dance?" questioned Yeats.
Can we know the dancer from the dance? That's the
question inherent in everything AXIS performs. That's one of the
questions the following interview tries to answer.
did your involvement in "Hidden Histories" begin?
MICHAEL: I invited Tom
to an AXIS performance in 1994. I didn't know him well then and
I didn't know Axis well either, but a friend told me that the company
was going to perform at the Berkeley Art Museum.
TOM: But you had seen Axis
MICHAEL: Only briefly,
as part of a festival featuring several different companies. I remember
how nice it was to see wheelchairs on stage performing with everybody
else. At the Berkeley performance we saw some flyers for Axis dance
classes. Tom and I looked at one another and I could tell we had
the same idea simultaneously.
TOM: Yeah, we sort of dared
each other: "I'll do it if you'll do it!"
BENT: Had your disability
been part of your life for long by then?
TOM: Oh, yes. In my junior
year of college I began to lose function in my right hand. That
progressed from the time I was twenty-one until the time I was twenty-six.
Then I started a really really slow, incremental partial recovery.
Then I had flare-ups in 1993 and '96, but nothing as bad as the
onset. I'd been living with disability but not really processing
I think I first approached disability
the way I'd approached being gay. I looked at the social and political
issues. But I was totally disconnected from my body. It was like,
"Well, I'm disabled now, I don't have a body anymore I just exist
in my head. I'm a cerebral being." So when Michael and I went
to that Axis show I totally freaked out! [laughter]
BENT: Can you remember
what aspect freaked you out?
TOM: A dancer named Uli,
specifically. Uli Schmitz. People, ah, people racing around in their
wheelchairs in a way that looked totally unsafe, that was bad enough,
but Uli, in particular, flinging his body around, totally flipped
me out. I seriously thought I was having some kind of anxiety attack.
I thought I was going to be ill. I really thought I was going to
have to get up and leave in the middle of the performance.
BENT: Did it make you feel
TOM: VERY afraid!
BENT: Did you think that
it was somehow "unseemly," like, Oh, these people shouldn't
be doing this?
TOM: No! I knew immediately
that I loved that part of it. It seemed very radical, and I loved
that. But on the visceral level it totally freaked me out. So that's
why there was a disconnect. Intellectually, I loved it, but my mind
was definitely arguing with my body. Maybe that's why when we saw
the flyers in the lobby, we dared one another.
BENT: Michael, was your
MICHAEL: Some of it I was
expecting because I'd seen Judy [Smith] in that earler performance
I mentioned. So the wheelchair part was no surprise. But, again,
it was Uli who blew me away.
BENT: One of you had better
describe how Uli performs, or readers aren't going to understand
your strong reactions.
Like me, he's a polio survivor. Polio affected his legs, so they're
very atrophied; he has no control over them. He uses braces to walk,
but not in performance, as a rule. So that's the first thing I noticed.
I identified with him. His legs looked like they were a puppet's
legs and the strings had been cut. They flop. They move this way
and that, depending on how his upper body pulls them along.
Another kind of disconnect, because his upper body is hugely muscular
. . .
MICHAEL: That was the image
that hit me in the solar plexus. To see his legs flop like thatin
public, in performancetook me into my own shame and feeling
of helplessness. I short-circuited inside. Uli was doing something
that I'd always felt was forbidden. We're not supposed to put our
disabled imperfect bodies on display. The only public images I'd
ever seen of anything similar were sideshows. But this was different.
There was no prurience. It was affirming.
BENT: What made the difference?
MICHAEL: Here was somebody
willing to show himself proudly in all his aspects. And people were
willing to pay money to see it!
TOM: I think that's why
I engaged with it intellectually, admired it. I'd been living in
California for about four years and I'd seen a lot of performance
art, so nothing was going to surprise me on that level. Queer Nation
was active then, so I was accustomed to the idea that you could
take the thing that people shame you about the most and put it out
front. And it seemed Axis was doing that. The work was politically
interesting to me and immediately impressed me as something I could
get behind. And yet, what they were doing was primarily aesthetic
rather than overtly political.
BENT: Isn't the artistic
presentation of our imperfect bodies inherently political?
TOM: In a sense, yes. People
stand in line, pay money and sit down to watch something they'd
maybe been conditioned to believe wasn't, couldn't be, art.
MICHAEL: Yes! It wasn't
one-sided. The audience and the artists needed one another to make
happen what happened.
BENT: Axis performers could
have been doing essentially the same work in a rehearsal studio
and feeling good about themselves, but it would not have been the
same. So Axis needed the audience as witnesses?
MICHAEL: Yes. As soon as
you've got a paying audience, it's a different thing.
BENT: Let's get back to
you and Tom and the dance workshop. What happened next?
MICHAEL: Well, we started
going to classes almost immediately after that Berkeley performance,
and that's when I left my body . . .
TOM: [laughter] That's
when I said "hello!" to mine.
BENT: Are you saying the
same thing in different ways? We'd better clarify what's going on.
MICHAEL: I "left my body"
because so much of my life, growing up with a disability, was about
the world putting barriers in my waynot only physical barriers,
but social, attitudinal. We work so hard to break down those barriersat
least I think most of us have tothat we almost never reach
the point of ourselves, being able to deal with our own personal
disability stuff. If the Axis class had been just an ordinary dance
class, there would have been too much for me to take on. I never
would have been able to do it.
BENT: Was it an integrated
TOM: It was a pretty even
mix, disabled and non-disabled. But we felt it was designed for
us. There's no way I would have gone if it hadn't been.
MICHAEL: That's what I
meant about barriers being in the way. Here, finally, was a situation
where I didn't need to break down barriers in order to participate.
Somebody had created a situation where there weren't any barriers!
So I could confront my self, my body. There was nobody coming at
me saying you can't do this. It was all my own shit that was surfacing,
saying to me, Oh, you've never explored this aspect of your body,
the possibly good part. Maybe you can do it. Now the possibility
is entirely within you . . .
BENT: How did that make
MICHAEL: Oh, I felt awful.
TOM: In class? You did?
MICHAEL: Oh, yes. I had
no idea about what a dance class would be like, but most of the
non-disabled people had had some experience, so at the beginning
I felt like an outsider all over again. I didn't know about warm-up,
I didn't know what those things they were wearing on their legs
were. All that kind of stuff. People had their shoes off! All of
a sudden I was a little kid again. I lost track of my own limits
and I did take off my shoes, and my brace, even though I know it's
not good for me to walk that way. I tried to fit in. That's so typical
of what I feel in the world: that I've got to do the work to fit
BENT: Tom, were your feelings
more positive from the start?
TOM: Yes. I took off my
braces, too. I wear them out in the world for stability; I'd never
think of walking around the street without them, I'd be afraid I'd
trip. But in the dance studio I discovered that I didn't have to
walk all the time. I could roll, or crawl, or scuttle across the
floor. There were all these options that were open to me. And I
also had memory of pre-disability.
When I started rolling and spinning,
all that sort of thing, and moving across the floor freely, which
I had not DONE for, I don't know, man, like fifteen years, suddenly
my body remembered all those ways of moving that I had not done
for such a long time. When disability hit, my focus was on staying
upright. Moving from one spot to another without falling, not tripping
down the stairs. Here I felt free.
BENT: Was part of it the
freedom not to feel ashamed, not to worry about "making a spectacle
TOM: That was part of it.
I really did feel that this was a laboratory environment where I
could experiment with movement. I didn't feel any of the sense of
shame that I feel in the world. I didn't feel like I had to censor
my movements, feel self-conscious. I was aware of how much I censor
my movement at work, but in the studio I became aware of how much
I censor it all the time.
BENT: You referred to a
sense of shame . . .
TOM: Well, sure. I'd lived
in San Francisco for about four years by then, and I was very much
aware of walking down Castro Street, for instance, and just being
acutely aware that I'm a disabled man. I felt like guys were looking
at me because I was disabled or else they weren't seeing me at all.
It was wonderful to be in the studio and feel like I could play.
On a purely physical level that was the wonderful thing . . . [delighted
laughter from both Tom and Michael]
BENT: OK, you two. What's
going on? Let us in on it!
TOM: Well, Axis develops
choreography using something called Contact Improvisation. Things
are developed out of natural words and gestures. You might come
up with a common phrase, like "Oh, my," then find a movement that
expresses that phrase, and then by following through on that movement,
connecting it to another movement, it can become a dance movement.
Or maybe you wave your arm in a certain way, then turn your shoulder
and spin your whole body and roll over on the floor. It becomes
about connection. And by doing this I re-engaged with my body and
remembered what it was capable of doing.
BENT: OK, but why was that
so funny when you two looked at one another just now?
TOM: Oh, because there
can be a sexual element to it. And since I'd been in the process
of coming out at around the time my disability first hit, the dance
experience re-engaged my body that way, too.
BENT: Do you mean that
disability had put a damper on your sexuality.
TOM: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
So after becoming so free with movement, I also became acquainted
with the whole idea of, you know, going out and being free in the
world. Screwing around. It was an awakening. It was a remarkable
thing. I do not mean I was groping
people in class! It was more a feeling I was able to take back into
the rest of my life. The studio work helped me shed some inhibitions.
I was able to say to myself, Oh, I'm a sexual being, too, and I
can feel OK about acting on that knowledge.
"Rope." Stephanie McGlynn and Uli Schmitz
Photo © Amy Snyder
shoulder blades: my grandmother called
them wingbones. why they called wingbones, grandma? is that where
angels grow wings? if you die and turn into a angel will
you grow wings, grandma, huh? could you fly? if you die and grow
wings could you fly?,
i wanna see the angels, grandma.
the history of my shoulder: i'm 21 years old and i have been a bus
boy, a janitor, a shipping clerk, a pallet jack driver, a grill
cook, and i've worked 8 summers on grandma's farm. i mean, i know
how to work.
i know how to put my shoulder to the
the history of my hands: my hands have
been busy, too. but in the spring of my junior year at college,
my right hand just quits. it stops working. it tries so hard. it
tries to make a fist. it tries to open. i know i should be grateful.
i still have a hand. i can still shake hands. i can hold hands.
i think maybe it just got tired. i think maybe it just said, fuck
you tom metz, i quit. i need a rest. i think maybe it just went
psst. waaaaake up.
three-and-a-half years later and a mysterious
stranger called "Peripheral Motor Neuropathy" has progressed through
the rest of my body: it's in my arms and my legs now, and my body
is never still. it twitches and cramps and trembles so badly sometimes
i can't sleep. neither hand works, and i write by holding a pen
in my teeth. i've dropped out of grad school and moved back to ohio
where my folks can take care of me. mom helps me dress, she makes
my meals. she fills out a mountain of paperwork for the Social Security
but eventually, one day, things begin
to turn around. I'm 26 years old and i regain some function in my
right arm , my left hand , and my right thigh. i can dress myself.
i learn how to write with my left hand. i cook my own meals now.
i buy my own groceries. I HAVE A JOB. life is great. but every now
and then, every couple years july of '93, january of last
year, maybe next month? i get the cramps and odd tremors in
a new spot, and i wonder what it means. each time it happens i remember
the last time it happened and i hope it doesn't mean now what it
meant then. i hope it doesn't mean what i think it means. something
inside of me checking out, waving good-bye. something traveling
up my arm to my wingbone. my wingbone, grandma. something's wrong.
i don't see any fucking angels.
MICHAEL: That didn't happen
for me, although I did sometimes get an erotic charge when we worked
on Contact Improv. I think that's because for so many disabled people
the only touch we get is medical or therapeutic. I enjoyed the women's
bodies as well. I was not used to touching women's bodies, especially
disabled women's bodies.
Another difference between Tom's
experience and mine has to do with his becoming disabled later in
life. I never had a sense of, Oh, I'm back to this, this body freedom,
because I just never had had it to remember. So the rolling around,
the "freedom," was terrifying to me. And then that made me ashamed
because I was in my forties doing for the first time something that
kids do when they're five. I didn't know my limits, I didn't know
what to expect from other people. Disabled people just aren't socialized
the same way.
TOM: Michael and I talked
about all those things a lot, our similarities and differences,
because we would drive to class together from San Francisco across
the bridge to Oakland and we'd talk about it before and after. There
was so much to talk about.
MICHAEL: Sometimes we'd
be walking out to the car after class and Tom would say something
like, Wow, I feel so energized. I feel absolutely wonderful. While
I'm thinking, Aw shit. Thank God this is over. I don't know if I
can do it again. That's not to say it was a horrific experience
for me. I was also liking it, I was also getting strokes. I think
if I hadn't been doing it with Tom, though, I would not have been
able to continue.
BENT: But it sounds like
you were coming at it from such different places. Could you really
understand what the other person was feeling?
MICHAEL: Not totally. But
I felt I was heard. I felt I was listened to.
TOM: Right. And that was
more than enough because it was so much more than we were getting
from the world at large. The workshop and talking about it with
Michael helped me figure out what it means to be disabled. It's
kind of like growing up gay. You don't grow up in a gay family.
Well, you don't grow up in a disabled family, eitheror a disabled
church, or school, or anything. When you find another disabled person
a lot of the commun- ication involves learning about his reality.
It's going to be the same but it's going to be different, too. So
you learn about yourself from the similarities and the differences.
BENT: How did your dance
class experience begin to move toward performing?
TOM: In May of 1994 we
started classes and by the Summer of '95 we'd been invited to join
a performance lab, just for students, that lasted about eight weeks.
It culminated in a private performance in the studio, for invited
guests. For me it was still about having fun, nothing more. Much
later I realized that a lot of what became Hidden Histories was
harvested from that lab experience.
BENT: Is it fair to say
your lab experience was the bridge between class and performance?
MICHAEL: You know, I don't
recall much of the lab experience, for some reason. What strikes
me as the bridge was some of the verbal improvisation we did in
class. I never felt at ease with the movement. Never. But I got
a lot of reinforcement about the verbal stuff. Tom, I think you
did, too. The director would say, You guys can talk.
You're good. I think that even then
she was looking ahead to incorporating some of our talk into Hidden
Histories, so we were providing an element that the company didn't
I remember one of the first times
she asked people to do something like that, I talked about My Vacation
From Hell, when my father died and I came out to my brother, all
at the same time! It was a really hard thing, but I was putting
out and everybody was laughing! [Tom is laughing now.] And I realized
that I was talking and moving at the same time.
BENT: You were entertaining
people by using the best comic material, your own pain. Did it give
you a sense of power?
MICHAEL: It was the first
time I felt adequate in that class. I had something to offer that
somebody else wanted. The body stuff was so old and so deep that
I would have needed to work for an hour to arrive at the same place
everybody else reached in five minutes. It went too fast for me.
With movement alone I was never emotionally present.
TOM: It was totally opposite
for me. Remembering how I used to be able to move became about recovering
those movements I could still use. If I did feel uncomfortable being
physical, the discomfort vanished immediately with the joy of moving
again. I managed to suppress the uncomfortable part in order to
enjoy the good part. Despite our different feelings about all of
this, what emerged finally was that we were both good talkers and
the director eventually asked both of us to prepare monologues for
what was still being called the Hidden Histories Project.
MICHAEL: And that's when
we switched from going to classes to going to real rehearsals. Scaree!
TOM: That was In January
1996. Two rehearsals a week. And suddenly it was, OK, we're not
playing around any more, let's get to work.
BENT: By this point in
the development of the piece were you just speakers?
TOM: Oh, no. We were fully
integrated into the choreography. We had speaking parts, but we
were pretty constantly in motion, too.
BENT: Michael, you described
how powerful you felt when you began to develop your first verbal
contributions. Tom, how did your monologue get started?
TOM: With one of those
Authentic Movement exercises where you start out with a phrase that
turns into a movement that turns into a dance. At one point I was
paired with a partner in a situation where we had to tell a story.
And I began to tell my partner, Jenny, the story of my hand: I can
still shake hands, I can still hold hands, I should be glad I still
have a hand. And then it became the story of my shoulder, and the
story of my foot. The movements were all about shaking hands, and
holding hands. I think that evolved into the story of the shoulder
blades, and then somehow my grandmother came into it and all those
pieces got connected into the monologue.
It was really wonderful for me,
because I had never documented that part of my life, never laid
claim to that part of me. When the director asked us to recreate
some of that with an eye toward performing it, on the one hand it
was flattering but on the other I had to let go of the idea that
there was going to be an audience there. That would have made me
totally self-conscious, freaked me out.
BENT: It sounds as if you
both had complex reactions to creating your monologues because of
where they came from in your personal histories. How did performing
them, really performing them for a genuine audience, transform either
the monologues or you?
MICHAEL: When I did an
early version of mine in front of an audience (this was before the
fully staged Hidden Histories), I felt absolutely terrified and
TOM: But Michael, you did
it! And, as I recall, it was a huge hit, and everybody was shocked.
MICHAEL: I was either running
on automatic or I was in a State of Grace, because I have no idea
how I got the words out. As the performance began, my shut-down
feeling lifted slowly. I came to the realization that, Michael,
you wouldn't have been asked to do this to fail. When my cue came
to leave the audience and carry my stool on stage, I was totally
calm and present. I just walked out on stage and started. There
was nothing I did to make it happen. Or at least that's how it felt.
I felt I'd done really well and the audience was clapping really
hard. That was the easy part. Things started to get tough when it
came time to rework the monologue for Hidden Histories.
BENT: What made the difference?
MICHAEL: That first time
I performed it the words just came pouring out . . .
"Prayer." Stephanie McGlynn and Megan
Photo © Amy Snyder
[Enter carrying stool]
[Set down stool and sit]
Let's talk! I'm a fifty-year-old polio
survivor. Many people have told me I don't look fifty. No one has
told me I don't look like a polio survivor!
As a teenager there was only one thing,
one activity that I would do, that I would feel comfortable doing
in front of a group of people. And that was dancing. I loved it.
I was always self-conscious, but my desire to dance was stronger
than my desire to stay hidden.
My Visible Difference: Once there was
a kid I knew at the orthopedic clinic. Twice a year, April and October,
three doctors, two nurses, one physical therapist, two aides, and
his mother gathered to watch.
This kid, stripped down to his underwear,
had to walk up and down a long rubber mat with three mirrors at
the very end.
He watched himself being watched by all
these grownups. They were evaluating what kind of surgery he would
be having next. They were looking at his body as something needing
to be fixed. They weren't looking at . . . him. He felt like he
was the scene of an accident.
Most of my life I've had that separation
Mefrom my body.
So there's not many times I can honestly
say that I like being looked at.
This is a rare occurrence.
[Big sweeping gesture]
I'm inviting you in.
When people stare, when they gawk, they
don't know the history of me. They don't know what it takes.
People just assume my body is a wreck. So, go ahead, take a good
look! What you see is what you get. And then some.
Not many people have ever looked at me
as if I were a marvelous mechanism. My hidden history is that my
body is really working rather well, considering what I've gone through.
It's amazing: Many of us don't get told
how good our bodies really are. We each have a unique architecture
of form, fit, and function.
Visible differences? Yes, indeed. We have
'em by the pound! Hidden histories? We have them by the pound, too.
We'd be happy to share.
Here's looking at you!
TOM: But then everything
had to be solidified and scripted to fit into the an evening-length
performance, where we needed to create transitions around our pieces,
so that they would fit into what came before and what came after.
MICHAEL: What happened
was that something that had been uniquely mine, my personal experience,
had to be cut to fit the bigger pictureArt. My apple got turned
into an orange. The director still wanted me to perform it as if
it was my apple, but it wasn't. For one thing, I'm not an actor.
BENT: You were talked into
becoming a performer instead of merely being invited to spill your
TOM: Right. What started
out as improv, which had value in itself because it was telling
authentic stories, then had to be transformed into something that
demanded technique and structure and . . .
BENT: Both of you sounded
almost resentful just now, as you recounted the circumstances, how
the demands being made on you changed.
MICHAEL: Oh, I think I
did resent it for a time. I felt badgered. I felt like I'd signed
on for one thing and then was told . . . well, I just didn't know
if I could deliver the goods, for one thing. I got scared all over
TOM: The director was giving
Michael feedback on his monologue, but of course she had no way
of knowing the extent to which it wasn't just his monologueit
was the story of his life.
MICHAEL: When I thought
about it later, it felt like being a kid again, like having to wear
braces and corrective shoes, but being told to walk like a normal
kid. So it was a split all over again. Feeling like I wasn't sufficient
the way I was.
TOM: And by that time we
were functioning under a great deal of pressure. We were working
on the monologues in conjunction with all of the choreography.
MICHAEL: For me, all the
issues of taking care of myself because of my disability went out
the window. Here was a dance company full of disabled people, but
we still had to do whatever it took to get the job done. At one
point, the message we heard was: This is not therapy, this is not
dress rehearsal, this is the real thing. This is not the place to
bring all your other stuff. We need you to work.
BENT: It sounds as if what
you resented at this point was being treated as a professionalvery
flatteringwhen you knew that, basically, you were not one.
TOM: In the classes the
premise was, Come with what you have and work from where you are.
For the performance, all the definitions were changed. The bar was
raised. Which is understandable, because AXIS is a professional
company, after all. You stay until midnight rehearsing if that's
what you have to do. And if you've worked ten hours that day at
your job, well, you're going to work some more now. As a disabled
person I've learned all these strategies for coping and I learned
how to set limits in order to take care of myself, yet here I am
in a disabled environment where I don't have the slack to do that
because it's a professional environment, too.
BENT: What a fine irony.
Here you are creating art about disability but finding that even
here, disability impinges on what you can do . . .
TOM: It was
ironic. And I think that Michael suffered more because his mobility
is different from mine. Also, I was younger and had more stamina
BENT: Was there any difference
for you between the demands of the choreography and the demands
of the monologue?
TOM: I didn't really separate
the monologue from the rest of the dance. For me, Hidden Histories
was about both, equally. Even though it was often a strain, I enjoyed
the performance aspect because I recollected the pleasure of doing
theater in high school and college. I was comfortable with the idea
of performing. But this was even better because it was a uniquely
collaborative group exercise. I felt lucky to be a part of it. I
remember one night when Michael and I were driving home, I said,
Oh, this is the biggest pain, it's so much work, I never want to
do this again, and, I feel so lucky I can't believe it! How many
peoplehow many disabled peopleget a chance to do this?
We questioned whether it was worth it, but I know it's something
I'll treasure forever.
MICHAEL: It's like giving
TOM: And the other thing
to remember is the special nature of the AXIS audience. They're
loyal, they love the company because it's unique and speaks to them
in a way no other dance company does, or any arts enterprise does,
period. So for me, I didn't feel it was my job to be a "performer"
but to tell a story, to communicate, to bring something of my own
to the table for this audience that I felt I knew.
That being said, I approached
opening night with great trepidation! I can't believe I did this,
but I invited every person I knew in San Franciscofor opening
night, mind you! Remember, this is not like doing a play or something.
It's extremely personal. Whenever I see a piece of performance art
that's personal in that vein, it treads a fine line between being
authentic and being self-indulgent, stupid and embarrassing. So
I thought, OK, I haven't been able to see this from the audience
perspective. I don't know what this really is. How good is our technique,
how good is our staging? Is this going to be a wonderful gift to
a receptive audience or is it going to be the most humiliating moment
of my life?!
On opening night we were all in
place behind the curtain, everybody lying or standing or sitting
in the appropriate position to begin, and we're all whispering things
like, Well, do we have a full house? Or, How are you feeling, what's
it going to be like tonight? I was in a meditative space, reviewing
my monologue, when I heard my friend Zoe laugh on the other side
of the curtain and I thought, Oh my god, everybody I know is out
there! My heart was beating so fast I thought, A person could die
from this. But then the curtain opened and everything was wonderful.
BENT: Michael, put yourself
in the same spot, behind the curtain on opening night. Tell us how
MICHAEL: I don't remember.
All I know is that I wanted it to succeed but I wanted it to be
over. Beyond that I don't remember much. Just saying quick little
prayers and hoping I remembered what to do and hoping I didn't fall.
BENT: And afterwards? Did
you feel you'd done yourself proud?
MICHAEL: I have no objectivity
about Hidden Histories. I have no idea about its artistic merit.
I was gratified that I had done it, that I was able to do it, that
I'd stuck with it. I was hoping for more of a personal transformation
from it than I got.
BENT: What did you want
that you failed to get?
MICHAEL: More confidence
about being in my own body, although I think it gave me some of
that. I was hoping it would reduce my feeling of self-consciousness
in public. Oddly enough I did not feel self-conscious on stage,
because I was representing a disabled man. But back on the street,
with friends, with lovers in particular, I felt no different. I
guess I wanted a conversion experience. I wanted to let the self-consciousness
go, to be done with it. And that never happened.
BENT: Do you feel that
since the performance there's been any long-term, cumulative effect
on your self-awareness?
MICHAEL: Maybe so. After
those performances, I became much more visible at work, I've had
two promotions. What I had to do in performance I'm now much more
capable of doing in life: being public. So it hasn't changed how
I feel inside, but maybe it's changed my ability to . . . perform.
TOM: I agree. There's constant
discomfort and friction just living in the world as a disabled man.
But there's another part of me that's adjustedor become resigned.
I wake up and say, Look at this, I'm disabled again today, just
like yesterday. I don't feel like my experience in the world is
going to be any happier or more successful, but I feel like my response
to the world is going to be more centered.
MICHAEL: I know what you
mean, Tom, and it's valuable for me to have this interview taking
place four years later. I realize now that I expected working with
AXIS would somehow lessen the impact of disability on my life. Taking
part in the production really codified the impact of disability
on my life. It proved to me that providing reasonable accommodation,
improved access in the workplace or anywhere else, actually ups
the ante. People think that access reduces the effect of disability.
Well, it doesn't.
BENT: Access to the workplace
is positive because it enables you to work, but then you have to
go to work and do all those things that are so difficult to do because
MICHAEL: Right. As the
world offers greater and greater access we come up against the reality
of our own disabilities more forcefully. In some ways disability
has protected me from a lot of "stuff" in the past that today I
have to confront more often.
TOM: That's been a tricky
balancing act for me at work. From time to time I've had to ask
for accommodation, and it's been a horrible, wrenching, painful
thing. I feel like it makes my disability more visible in a way
that I don't like. Also, I'm afraid to be seen as someone who doesn't
pull his weight, do his fair share. As far as possible, I avoid
any mention of disability at work. I pin up flyers for AXIS performances
and I'll talk about AXIS till the cows come home, but don't ask
me about my own disability. I don't want to talk about it. I just
don't want to talk about it at allin the work environment.
Everywhere else I feel perfectly free to. But to me work is a performance
environment, a place where I need to show up and hit my marks and
I don't want to talk about anything else.
MICHAEL: That makes me
sad . . .
TOM: Me, too.
MICHAEL: . . . because
how are things ever going to change if we don't get to be ourselves
everywhere we are?
BENT: One final question,
then: Did working on Hidden Histories make you confront your disability
more? Was that part of the pain of it and part of the success?
MICHAEL: I'd put it differently.
It allowed me to open up to it. What I found out about my disability
involved stuff I never even knew about me, because I was too busy
defending myself from myself, or myself from other people. Working
with AXIS taught me to take responsibility for my feelings, but
to insist on my right to have the feelings. Denial is always easier.
TOM: In AXIS we asked questions
and made demands that we didn't feel free to do elsewhere. By engaging
our disabled selves there, maybe we learned a little bit more about
how to do it in the world. It's hard work, but it makes a richer
life. My life has changed for the better, but how much of that can
I attribute to working with AXIS? That's hard to say. But I will
tell you that I am very keen on finding similar experiences.
I relish the memory of Hidden
Histories and I want to have more experiences like that, experiences
that take me on new creative paths. I want to do things that help
me integrate the different parts of my lifebeing disabled,
being gay, being fully human in the 21st Century. There's so much
to explore. AXIS opened a door that I was convinced had been nailed
shut. I don't ever want that door closed in my face again. I'm greedy
© 2000 BENT
Besides performing with AXIS Dance Company, TOM METZ
has appeared with Mabel Maney and the Lake Merrymen Players
at Red Dora's Bearded Lady Cafe in San Francisco and at the Highways
Performance Space in Santa Monica. His writing has appeared in newspapers,
magazines, and in an essay for A Family and Friends' Guide to
Sexual Orientation (Routledge Press, 1996). Currently his best
work is represented by science fiction written in support of software
products for corporate clients in Silicon Valley.
"My first performance," reports MICHAEL PERREAULT
(firstname.lastname@example.org) "was in a backyard 'circus'
when I was six. It involved bending my right thumb backward to the
wristeasy when you've had polio. Much to my delight, I grossed
out all the Moms, but also learned there are things about me that
people would rather not see. Thirty years passed before my next
performance, a musical turn at a gay and lesbian Living Sober Conference.
Stardom remained elusive, but Al-Anon taught me I had something
to say. That, in turn, led me to AXIS, a dream-come-true that I
didnšt know I wanted. Eventually I found myself on the Board of
Directors of Able-Together, a group of gay and bisexual men who
are disabled or interested in men who are. Stepping into my own
gayness and disability has convinced me that survival, tolerance
and acceptance are not enough. My life is a performance that I want
celebrated. I look to our being celebrated."
is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
To learn more: www.axisdance.org