A BENT Interview:
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."

 

Dancing, or 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.

Modern dance, 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.

Dance: classical 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 without—bodies.

Consider the 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 secret—the battered feet of a Nureyev, say—that make it all possible. But in the beautiful world of dance that's merely a—footnote.)

Dancers' bodies are admired, often worshipped, sometimes fetishized—men'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.

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BENT: How 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 before then.

MICHAEL: Only briefly, as part of a festival featuring several different companies. I remember thinking
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 the feeling.

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 afraid?

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 reaction similar?

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.

MICHAEL: 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.

TOM: 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 that—in public, in performance—took 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 way—not only physical barriers, but social, attitudinal. We work so hard to break down those barriers—at least I think most of us have to—that 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 class?

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 you feel?

MICHAEL: Oh, I felt awful. 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 in.

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 of yourself?"

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

HIDDEN HISTORIES
Tom's Monologue

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 wheel.

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 to sleep.

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 Administration.

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.

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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, either—or 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 have.

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 shut down.

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 Schirle
Photo © Amy Snyder

 

HIDDEN HISTORIES
Michael's Monologue

[Enter carrying stool]

Heads up!

[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.

[Pause]

Most of my life I've had that separation
Me—from 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.

[Big smile]

Here's looking at you!

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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 picture—Art. 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 guts onstage.

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 again.

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 monologue—it 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 professional—very flattering—when 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 then.

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 people—how many disabled people—get 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 birth.

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 Francisco—for 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 you felt.

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 adjusted—or 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 you're disabled!

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 all—in 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 life—being 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 for more.

© 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 (mjp1@concentric.net) "was in a backyard 'circus' when I was six. It involved bending my right thumb backward to the wrist—easy 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."

AXIS Dance Company
is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
To learn more: www.axisdance.org