“The Empress” and dance ensemble during dress rehearsal of “The Empress and her New Clothes” at Momenta Dance Company on March 4th, 2023. | Sara Janz

Oak Park-based Momenta is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a dance company and its 20th year of being inclusive of dancers with disabilities. To mark the two major milestones, Momenta is staging two different shows this month, with dancers performing  physically integrated works, all choreographed by Momenta alumni.

“I would like our audiences to see that physically-integrated dance is its own beautiful artform. Our performances can hopefully change perceptions and preconceived notions about disability,” said Sarah Najera, Momenta artistic and executive director.

The Momenta showcase includes a matinee performance of “The Empress and Her New Clothes,” starring professional Ladonna Freidheim with supporting performances by children in the dance company. The evening show, “Coming Home,” features adult professionals and advanced student dancers. Both shows will be performed the weekends of March 11 and March 18 at the Academy of Movement & Music, the studio out of which Momenta was founded in 1983.

Momenta was expanded in 2003 to embrace dancers with disabilities by Stephanie Clemens and Larry Ippel, two of the dance company’s three founders. Since then, Momenta has been challenging the ableist ideas that block many from engaging in dance.

“Momenta’s stage is a place for all of our performers to be seen, acknowledged and celebrated, and that includes artists with disabilities who are making important contributions to the world of dance because of their disability, not in spite of it,” said Najera.

Dance is one of, if not the most expressive art forms because it uses the entire body to tell a narrative, but the world of dance is also one of the most physically discriminatory. Those without full range of motion are widely excluded from dance classes and programs because their bodies do not fit the standard of what is traditionally expected of dancers. This marginalization leads many people with disabilities to believe that they cannot be dancers.

Freidheim, now 55, was led to believe that her dance career was over when she was diagnosed as a young woman with a degenerative disease. She had only performed three times as a professional ballerina before her condition caused her to lose stability in her legs. And while she did not need to use a wheelchair immediately after her diagnosis, she was essentially shunned from the professional dance community.

“When I showed up at a dance studio with my leg braces on, one of my old teachers said, ‘You know it’s just too depressing for the other dancers to see a cripple,” she recalled. “It was pretty awful.”

Momenta directly opposes the idea that a person who uses a wheelchair or has a disability cannot be a dancer. Pieces performed by the company are fully integrated, which is unusual even in companies that accommodate wheelchair usage.  Dancers with and without disabilities dance alongside and with each other, challenging conventional  ableist beliefs that perpetuate the mass rejection of entire groups of capable artists.

Dance ensemble during dress rehearsal of “The Empress and her New Clothes” at Momenta Dance Company on March 4th, 2023. | Sara Janz

Wheelchairs are not treated as props in Momenta, but rather as extensions of the body. They are incorporated into composition of dances in much the same way that a choreographer would call for a male dancer to lift a ballerina during a pas de deux. Momenta choreographers likewise do not eliminate partner dances from the company’s repertoire on the basis of one dancer using a wheelchair while the other does not.

For the piece “Runes,” which is a part of the program’s evening show, wheelchairs are used for balance and connection between the dancers, according to dancer Jess Martin, who uses a motorized wheelchair, having been born with cerebral palsy and dystopia, a condition that causes muscles to contract involuntarily.

The wheelchairs, like the people who use them, are integral to the construction and performance of the piece. In “Runes,” like other Momenta pieces, dancers with disabilities do not feel as though they have been shoehorned in for the sake of surface-level inclusivity.

“I love this dance because they couldn’t do it without us,” said Martin. “We’re really a part of it and we don’t feel like we’re added on.”

“Runes,” choreographed by Oak Park native Annika Sheaff, is an archival Momenta piece first performed in 2016. It was restaged this year for the showcase. Martin and Kris Lenzo, another company dancer who uses a wheelchair, have had the distinction of being in “Runes” during its original staging and its 2023 revival.

Sheaff, who now lives and teaches college dance courses in Ohio, studied dance at the Academy of Movement and Music and continued her training at Julliard before embarking on her professional dance career. “Runes” was the first time she had ever worked with a group of physically integrated dancers.

“I just tried to see how creative we could be, what sort of things could we do with the bodies in the room that we couldn’t do if it was a different group of people,” she told Wednesday Journal. “It just led to so many beautiful possibilities.”

Dance ensemble during dress rehearsal of “The Empress and her New Clothes” at Momenta Dance Company on March 4th, 2023. | Sara Janz

Of the many possibilities to come from inclusive choreography was a star-making turn for former athlete Lenzo, who has used a wheelchair since 1979 after a work accident necessitated a bilateral amputation.

To celebrate the accessibility improvements made to the studio, Lenzo, whose daughters were academy students, was asked to dance alongside his youngest, then a preschooler. That father-daughter moment led to him being in another piece, where the incredibly strong Lenzo was suspended upside down eight feet from the ground. From his aerial position, he spent the nine-minute piece dancing with a partner, at various points lifting her from the ground then lowering her back down.

Prior to joining Momenta, Lenzo joked that he only danced twice a year at weddings. He’s since been with Momenta for two decades, even winning an award for dance in 2015 from 3Arts, a non-profit that works in Chicago’s arts community. The designation of “dancer” does not depend on whether or not someone uses a wheelchair or a cane or a brace. It depends on opportunity.

“The Empress” during dress rehearsal of “The Empress and her New Clothes” at Momenta Dance Company on March 4th, 2023. | Sara Janz

“We’re all natural movers and dancers to some extent,” Lenzo said. “I think everybody can give it a try.”

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