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Dance company redefines ‘GIMP’

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"The GIMP Project" is designed to question traditional depictions of beauty. Photo via Luke Olsen.

The most common meaning of the word “gimp” in society describes a lame person or a halting walk. Heidi Latsky and the eight dancers of the GIMP Project want to remind audiences of an older definition: a fighting spirit.

The Helfaer Theatre, in association with Alverno Presents, will present the GIMP Project on Jan. 28 and 29 at 8 p.m. The brainchild of director and choreographer Latsky, the show features a combination of able and disabled dancers united together on stage through dance. Despite the edgy title and subject matter, Latsky said audience reactions have been phenomenal.

“People who come say that it’s unusual to see the bodies on the dance stage, but by the end of the show, it’s a nonissue,” Latsky said. “And it shouldn’t be (an issue).”

The idea for the show originated in 2006 when Latsky began working with renowned dancer Lisa Bufano. Latsky said she was “enamored by her movement,” despite the fact that Bufano lost both of her feet and her fingers when she was 21. As a result, the two began constructing a show entitled “From The Limb.”

While the presentation originated with a focus on Bufano, the show morphed as more and more people joined. According to Latsky, much of the show’s growth is thanks to Lawrence Carter-Long, a dancer with cerebral palsy whom she met through Bufano.

“When I kept experimenting with the show, I thought of him immediately, and through him I met this series of people,” Latsky said.

The show premiered in 2008, but, as with any creative product, it has changed and grown over time. As the show developed, its title changed, becoming the edgier GIMP Project. Even now, three years after its debut, Latsky noted they are “still working out” the dance relationships between the able and disabled performers.

“The dance world is very stringent and has its dysfunctions, so to bring people in who aren’t familiar with that world can be difficult,” Latsky said.

She said one of the main goals of the show is to redefine virtuosity, the technical and aesthetic brilliance of art, which she believes to be one of the main missions of the art of dance. She said GIMP also aims to be a visual representation of diversity and a demonstration of “the beauty of bodies interweaving together.”

Latsky said many of the piece’s missions extend outside of the stage and to the entire art world.

“I’m interested in the human experience, not just about the art,” Latsky said. “The work is topical, and I think it’s important for the art world to address some of these topics.”

This combination of examining the physical and the mental worlds of art can be somewhat attributed to Latsky’s background in both psychology and dance. The show’s director received her B.A. in Psychology in 1979, and only started dancing when she was 20, a relatively old age for female dancers.

“It was a struggle to become a dancer,” Latsky said. “It was hard work, and it was hard on my body.”

As it turned out, it was even harder than she knew at the time. Unbeknownst to Latsky, she had ligamentous laxity, a condition in which one’s ligaments are loose and not restricted in motion as normal ligaments are. The undiagnosed disorder left Latsky with unanswered questions and frustrations.

“I couldn’t walk sometimes, I was in so much pain, and I didn’t understand,” Latsky said. “It took years to realize that was the root of the problems.”

Due to the show’s content and Latsky’s painful backstory, it’s natural to worry that the GIMP Project’s performances this weekend will be too depressing or emotionally draining.  According to Latsky, though, the show is quite the opposite.

“(Audiences) fear the title, and it’s modern dance, and (we’re) putting disabilities into modern dance,” Latsky said. “They think it’s going to be depressing, and it’s not. It’s uplifting and exciting.”

Someone who is definitely excited about the weekend’s shows is the director of Alverno Presents, David Ravel. Ravel, whom Latsky described as a “very unique and passionate” presenter, became aware of the director and choreographer about five years ago through her ties to members of the Milwaukee dance community, including Danceworks, Inc.

“She told me about this piece and what she was doing,” Ravel said. “I’ve been following it for years from some of its earliest stages, and I now felt it was in this beautiful place. I wanted to share it with Milwaukee.”

This performance is unique among the other shows in the Alverno Presents series because it is taking place at the Helfaer, rather than Alverno College itself. However, Ravel thought this particular show needed a different stage.

“The piece’s beauty is in its details,” Ravel said. “You need to be close up to it and have a clear view of the floor.”

A space, however, is only as good as what it is filled with, and Ravel anticipates a performance that is not only beautiful, but redefines the word “beauty” as well.

“We all have an idea of what dancers look like,” Ravel said. “(Latsky) has taken our preconceptions of what movement and beauty are and busted them wide open. It makes you realize that beauty isn’t something that solely belongs to people with two arms and two legs. … It’s impossible to look at dance the same way.”

"GIMP" pairs able and disabled dancers together, resulting in a truly unique arts experience. Photo via Chris Ash.

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