Heidi Latsky Dance:
A Company and a Calling
By Roslyn Bernstein
Last August, I saw the Heidi Latsky Dance (HLD) perform a deconstructed art exhibit and choreographed fashion show in an outdoor courtyard adjacent to the Hurleyville Arts Centre, a venue that opened in 2016. I was reporting a story on the Catskill hamlet of Hurleyville, which had once attracted vacationers from New York City and which, after experiencing a major decline, was now experiencing a rebirth as an inclusive community, under the direction of the Center for Discovery, the largest pediatric provider in New York State for children with complex disabilities. Latsky’s performance was only a small part of my story but there was no controlling my reaction.
To be honest, Heidi Latsky Dance blew me away. I sat in my folding chair, my fingers clenching the seat, as I watched professional dancers –performers with and without disabilities — strut and sway to the soundtrack of “Dirty Dancing,” –after all this was the Catskills! A blind dancer, a dancer missing parts of two legs, a dancer with one arm, a dancer whose short torso did not align with her long arms and limbs.
All graceful, compelling figures, dressed in white crocheted or plastic (3-D printed) costumes. Stopping to pose, getting close to the small audience, and in the end inviting the audience to dance with them. A joyous celebration of diversity and inclusion.
I had spent my childhood taking formal ballet lessons dressed in a pale blue leotard with pink tights, my feet snug in pink leather ballet slippers. I had spent my pre-teen years studying modern dance and a bit of tap. Nothing prepared me for what I saw that day.
For months after the performance, I thought about the company and its brave dancers. Old, young, tattooed, blind, abled, disabled. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the company would be performing at Baruch College, where for over four decades I taught as a Professor of Journalism and where I served as the founding director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
This time they were performing D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D., a piece that was created during their year-long residency at the Hurleyville Art Centre, a work that received a commissioning grant from the O’Donnell-Green Music and Dance Foundation, with additional funding provided by Harkness Foundation for Dance. At Baruch. the Heidi Latsky Dance residency received support from the City University of New York Dance Initiative (CDI).
Taking advantage of a curved staircase that leads down to the Rose Nagelberg Theater on the lower level of the Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC), Latsky created a guerrilla sculpture court, positioning dancers along the way: resembling the living statues in Times Square or on the Rambla in Barcelona — so still that their slow movements surprise us. In the case of the Latsky statues, a sudden repositioning is followed by complete stillness.
The audience enters the theater and is led in groups through the back corridors. Along the way, people are encouraged to peep through curtains to see the dancers poised on the stage. Dramatically, when theater goers reach the back of the stage, they are directed to walk through these dancers to find their seats. This entry speaks to the theme of HLD, inclusion, launching the audience’s experience by mixing them with the company.
Spoken lyrics fill the theater: a staccato of descriptions: “Male, 26, black hair, white, 6 feet 8 inches, towering over us, small green eyes, crooked teeth, narrow nose, weak chin, spindly frame, long legs, wide hands, quick gait, shrunken heard. Female, early 30s, long brown hair, white, 5 feet 8 inches, large blue eyes, average build, average breasts, wide hips, long legs, right arm tapers at the elbow.”
Unique variations repeated over and over again. Males with large ears and engorged hands, pot-bellies, sagging eyes, and sloping cheekbones. Females with small breasts, limp hands, and large noses. Every one of them, like the dancers themselves, imperfect.
A dancer with truncated legs, crawls, rolls, twists, tumbles across the floor with grace and power; an aerialist with partial legs hangs upside down from her wheelchair. Another dancer in a wheelchair zooms back and forth across the stage, deftly avoiding hitting the other dancers.
Latsky launched her own dance company in 2001 after a career as a principal dancer for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Some five years later she found her true calling when she began to work with visual artist Lisa Bufano, a bi-lateral amputee, who became “her muse.” It was an epiphany for Latsky, a moment when her company’s mission and vision came into focus.
Although Bufano had not really danced before, she had gotten a grant to make a dance solo and perform it in New York City and she wanted a choreographer to help her. “She had all of these prosthetics, running legs, and stilts when I met her,” Latsky said. At the time, Latsky was involved in making a dance for herself, “From the Limb” — an experimental piece where she was trying to find a new way to move. She had always been a slash and burn, intensely athletic dancer and she was beginning to experiment with softness in dancing.
Enter Bufano, who had no fingers and no lower limbs but who taught Latsky what she was looking for in dancers: someone who was fierce and someone who was vulnerable. They worked together for six months to make Bufano’s 25 minute solo. In the process, Latsky learned all about the disabilities community. “It was a huge learning curve for both of us. And that’s how it all started.” She began to invite people to come to rehearsals. At that moment in time, it was hard to find people with disabilities who wanted to dance.
Since then, Latsky’s career has blossomed, both as a choreographer/artist whose work promotes inclusion and diversity and as an advocate for the disability community. Oftentimes, her dance works intentionally startle and/or challenge audiences. During the fall of 2006, Latsky developed a project whose unconventional title “GIMP” shocked the audience and alienated some people in the disability community. Drawing upon a lesser known definition of the word gimp, from the Oxford English Dictionary — meaning a fighting spirit, vigor, or an interwoven fabric — the GIMP project involved a series of dance works and outreach programs with diverse unconventional casts.
GIMP began a very special moment in time for Latsky’s company and it lasted for years. The piece was about being watched and Latsky chose eight dancers for the performance, four older dancers from her company and four people with disabilities. For six years, Latsky’s company mostly performed GIMP, dancing for the last time out-of-doors at Lincoln Center and even touring the work internationally. “GIMP was a very intense process,” Latsky explained. “I gave up everything. I gave up teaching.” From that moment on, Latsky never went back to a non-disabled cast.
Fast forward to 2018. Latsky’s immediate goal for D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D. is for the work to evolve and travel everywhere. “I love this piece,” she said. “After three years of stillness, my dancers can move. It is the next step.”
Latsky’s big dream is to put the show on in an alternative, Off-Broadway house where it could run one or two months so that it can build momentum. That, of course, would take an investor. Meanwhile, to build her repertoire, she is also creating a small chamber piece for the dancers who have been with her the longest — an entity that can be performed by multiple casts.
Latsky believes that her work is very accessible. “It is hard for an audience to see people with disabilities that they don’t usually see, to actually look at them. And, a lot of people are very challenged,” Latsky said. “But it’s a good thing. HLD has dancers of different body types, different ages, and different ethnicities, too. It’s all very important. We are a great representation of democracy.”