It’s an early morning here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts and after an unusually long winter, we’re finally emerging, shedding layers, de-frosting our minds and bodies and staying in sync with the bulbs that are, at long last, pushing up all around us. It just feels right that the long-absent sun and its warmth should be lifting up over the hills as I am typing a story about Dawn Lane, as though it’s the name of a street heading somewhere bright, shiny and warm. I smile and think to myself: true to her name, Dawn Lane knows how to bring people to a bright place.
Dawn Lane is a choreographer and the Program & Artistic Director for Community Access to the Arts [CATA]. Based in Great Barrington, MA, CATA nurtures and celebrates the creativity of people with disabilities through shared experiences in the visual and performing arts. For nearly twenty years, Dawn has worked for CATA, within which she founded a mixed ability dance company, aptly named The Moving Company.
Over the years, Dawn has received numerous honors for her abilities as a distinguished dance educator and is one of three nationally chosen dance educators to teach Jacob's Pillow Curriculum in Motion™. With support from the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award Initiative, she was recently awarded a Creative Development Residency at The Pillow where she will rehearse and create ALL RISE: Court Dance. Her new work will be produced by CATA and will premiere this fall. A segment of it, Red Tape, will be performed at CATA’s annual gala and performances on May 16th and 17th at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA.
It’s no wonder Dawn has received so many awards. As a teacher, she draws out what is most beautiful and pure in the artists with whom she works. As a choreographer, she astutely joins dancers with their audience. This past winter I had the pleasure of watching Dawn at work on Red Tape. A work-in-progress, its significance and meaning gradually took shape as each week’s rehearsal revealed a new layer to the dance. Red Tape is perfectly timed to emerge on stage after months of winter rehearsals, poised and ready to flourish in spring light.
Red Tape will be performed by a mixed company comprised of artists with and without disabilities. Dawn is working with dancers who possess a wide range of ability. Each dancer comes with her own specific way of moving, learning, and expressing herself. Addressing the different levels of ability requires some essential ‘tools,’ the first of which entails a deep respect for artistry and with that, expectations, too.
“Across all the genres in which we work, CATA Faculty Artists set a high bar for our artists with disabilities. The expectation to perform well and to do our best serves us all. There is something very motivating about reaching just a little bit higher in whatever we do” says Margaret Keller, CATA’s Executive Director.
In order to achieve lasting outcomes, CATA Faculty Artists employ humor, compassion, mutual respect and discipline throughout their teaching. This approach is at work each week as Dawn adds layers and cues to the dance, all the while guiding the artists through actual red tape – Walking. Tape. Walking + Tape… Walking + Tape + “under”…Walking + Tape + “under” + “over”…Walking + Tape + “under” + “over” + “Initials.” It’s a friendly, easy-going process but everyone is focused and working hard. There’s no slacking, no chatting, just friendly banter that keeps everyone on their toes…and moving.
Red Tape begins with dancers crossing the studio, as though pedestrians crossing the street, trying to get from one place to another…just a typical day. The next layer adds the simple, but profound element of tape – brightly colored, blinding tape that runs across the dance floor making the crossings more crowded and difficult. As the next layer is added, the bright threads intersect and form “blocks” in the road. Dawn’s instructions “back away if you can’t get through. Find a new route. Over. Under. Ask for help from others…” guide the dancers as they adjust and modify their movement, always attentive to her cues.
Throughout a seemingly tangled web of passers-by, helpers and obstacles, each dancer stops to perform her initials – a set of separate movements for each of the three letters of her name – as if to say, “I am” … “I am ready, willing and capable of moving through the challenges in my day - on my own and with the help of others.” When the dance closes, the connection has been made and I am humbled: I know each dancer’s name.
This is the beauty of Dawn’s teaching. In five minutes of dance she illustrates the power of individual ability as well as the power of community support and connection. Each component is essential to nourishing and nurturing artistic ability. I leave the studio thinking about these women and what their days might be like. How many life frustrations do they face alone? How many do they work through with the support of family, friends and teachers?
No matter the number of obstacles, the dance reminds me of their strength, ingenuity, resilience and tremendous ability to improvise and move through life’s tangles and knots. It is easy to renew my profound gratitude for CATA and its commitment to helping those with disabilities, filling their days with Possibility and guiding them away from Isolation.
CATA and its faculty, coupled with a loving and supportive community, pave the way for Possibility to thrive in the lives of those living with disabilities. It strikes me that the threads that join the many helpful parts of a community could just as easily replace the bright and tangled red tape on stage. Instead of being seen as obstacles they could illustrate the equally profound message that “I alone become myself. I cannot become myself alone.”
We are all here on earth to help one another. No one should be left out. It is with this spirit that CATA programming is carried out in healthcare, therapeutic, eldercare, educational, community, and cultural settings; serves over 600 individuals with developmental, physical, emotional, and mental disabilities; partners with 38 different human service and educational organizations, as well as individuals living at home; and leads 1000 arts workshops each year across Berkshire County providing a wide array of genres – painting, sculpture, dance, theatre, improv, drumming, singing, juggling, yoga, and creative writing.
CATA creates safe places for artists who, together with their mentors and peers, fill those spaces with creative accomplishments that are fueled on trust, compassion, and comradery. In the end, these programs do more than encourage growth and well-being. They break down the walls of Isolation and shatter any lack of awareness. Performing in public gives CATA artists a chance to dispel misconceptions about their lack of ability and to ease any discomfort that might occur when encountering those who are physically and mentally challenged.
On stage, these brave artists are inviting the public in: “Know Me.” “I am.” As they initiate a dialogue and build awareness of our collective ability to engage in this moving dialogue, it is not, as some cynics argue, “Objectifying Disability.” It is a moment when CATA artists are ready, willing, and able to show us the tremendous Possibility that exists in their lives and within their spirit.
On their own and as part of a supportive community, CATA artists thrive through their engagement with the Arts as part of a community that cares for and encourages them. Mark and Lee Ann Pettus are parents to Alex, their 22 year old son with Down syndrome whose needs growing up were fully embraced by the Dalton school system. Mark lights up when talking about his son and comments that Alex was rarely in isolation. He has always loved drumming, karaoke and dancing, and participates in Dawn’s Friday class. All of these activities bring out new sides of Alex and his joy invites people in. It’s wonderfully contagious and Mark adds, “The Performing Arts open people up… and they just…flourish.”
When an artist flourishes, it’s a beautiful, authentic moment. When their joy spreads and touches us, it brings light into dark places and softens sharp edges. This always happens at the CATA annual performances. When the artists perform, we do not see their disability. We are too caught up in Possibility and the wonder of a gift borne of boundless generosity, a gift that reminds us that we are all joined by brightly colored threads and that no one is ever alone when Possibility leads the way.
Community Access to the Arts 2015 Gala & Performance will take place on Saturday, May 16th with a matinee performance on Sunday, May 17th. Follow this link for more information about CATA’s annual gala and performances of READY WILLING & ABLE. Or phone CATA directly: (413) 528-5485. To learn more about Dawn Lane, please visit her site Dawn-Lane.com.