Jun 14, 2008

Sand in an Oyster

This is a beautiful article that was sent my way by a support group I belong to. A prima ballerina in Mexico has done a one-woman show by living in a wheelchair for months, seeing what it was like and then turning it into a performance. Here is the article in it's entirety:

'Sand in an Oyster,' A Dancer for the Disabled

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 4, 2008; A14

MEXIC O CITY -- Rossana Peñaloza has floated across stages in Lima and Havana and Mexico City. She has writhed and winced, spun and darted.

But this prima ballerina, the embodiment of beauty and athleticism, had to sit down to really shake people.

Sit down in a wheelchair.

For weeks now, Peñaloza has shocked and shamed Mexico, performing a one-woman show that challenges perceptions of the disabled in a country where people with disabilities frequently live cloistered lives because of the social stigma associated with their condition here. Though Peñaloza is not disabled -- at age 45, her limbs can still send her shooting artfully across a stage -- she conceived a startling performance almost entirely confined to a wheelchair. A dance on wheels.

For six months before her debut this spring, Peñaloza chose to live in a wheelchair. She tried to navigate Mexico City sidewalks that have no ramps or that have broken ramps or ramps so narrow her wheelchair didn't fit. She cringed as speeding drivers came breathtakingly close to running her down, even when she was in the crosswalk.

But most of all, she watched people's eyes. After years of catching bouquets and taking bows, she suddenly was "the other," a freak, an annoyance and, maybe worst of all, an object of pity.

She cried every day. And she was furious.

"And You, What?" -- the title of Peñaloza's one-woman show -- grew out of those frustrating days. Her "grito" -- a Spanish word that means emphatic cry -- has turned her into an accidental activist, a buzz-generating and provocative voice. All it took was a ballerina willing not to use her legs.

She has earned a following among students at the nearby National Autonomous University of Mexico. One recent evening, scores of them packed an art house theater to watch her, many of them snapping photographs throughout the performance.

"This just makes you think a lot," said Gabriella Castro, a photography student attending the show for a second time. "I've never seen anything like it."

On stage, Peñaloza transforms her wheelchair from an object that limits her to an object that enhances. She abandons the use of her legs, picking them up and dropping them heavily over the backrest. Then she arches her back, dangling over the edge of the seat and gliding effortlessly.

In one scene, Peñaloza touches herself beneath her clothes. Lourdes Silva, director of a Mexico City radio program staffed by disabled people, was transfixed.

"People -- especially here in Mexico -- don't realize that the disabled often experience sexuality just like anyone else," Silva said in an interview. "It never gets talked about, and you certainly never see it on a stage. It was powerful."

Even the music is searching, questioning, inconclusive.

"Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," the Latin classic by Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés that repeats "perhaps, perhaps, perhaps," jumps out of the speakers as Peñaloza hurtles toward the end of the stage

For all her grace in the wheelchair, Peñaloza's performance strikes some of its most powerful notes when she is still. That is when the audience starts to feel the heat of her artistic statement.

"Will you play with me?" she asks, her eyes boring into those of one person in the audience after another.

"Will you be my friend?"

"Will you give me work?"

Then she waits. And waits.

Invariably, those who come under her gaze begin to squirm. They fiddle with their rings. Brush lint from lintless shoulders. Stare at their shoes.

Few ever want to play.

And that's the point, Peñaloza said one recent afternoon at a cafe in Coyoacan, a neighborhood whose beloved cobblestone streets presented a nightmarish obstacle course during her months of preparation for the show. The anger, frustration and sadness that inform Peñaloza's show rose quickly to the surface and overflowed. She seethed about Mexican schools too often segregating students with disabilities and lamented the "paternalism" of Mexican society and families that she says often isolates young disabled people.

"My work is a grain of sand in an oyster so that all this will change," she said.

Peñaloza began shaping her project several years ago while giving dance lessons at a center for the disabled in Cuernavaca, a town south of Mexico City. But her own grain of sand, the one that eventually became "And You, What?," began forming years earlier, she said, when she was a child gymnast in her native Peru.

She regularly competed against children from a school for children who are deaf and mute. And the competition was tough. The children performed routines accompanied by music, she said, even though they couldn't hear. And they didn't miss a beat.

"I was so impressed," she recalled. "It had a big impact on me."

She carried those memories with her to Mexico, where she moved 4 1/2 years ago with her husband, a Mexico native who had been the conductor of the Lima Philharmonic. She was lonely at first. Despite her extensive résumé, she couldn't pierce the cliquey Mexican dance scene.

At the center for disabled children, though, she began to revive. The children, she said, taught her that "life isn't about 'me, me, me.' "

They made her want to dance.


  1. Anonymous12:00 PM

    Trying to navigate Mexico's streets in a wheelchair? Jeez, that had to be tough.

  2. Way cool! I like the concept.

  3. I love the title, especially. The idea that one person CAN make a difference, if only through irritation!!

    My gosh, what a wonderful person...

  4. That's pretty inspiring.

  5. that's heartwarming.

    I wish alot more people would get out there and do things like this, especially if they feel compelled.

    Why do we treat our disabled like lepers?

  6. Anonymous2:38 PM

    That truly is an inspiring story.

  7. What an excellent article and an amazing woman. The show sounds incredible and inspiring.

  8. Well, I've wasted my life.