At Saturday’s inaugural DisFest at the Chicago Cultural Center, Robby Lee Williams moved with grace as he glided across the floor with his dance partner Tatiana Castañeda, lifting and spinning her as they performed a duet.
Called “Boyh,” the piece explores the intimacy of caring for a partner with a disability through choreography by Julia Cox at MOMENTA and music performed by a string quartet and piano.
In a second piece, Williams and his partner joined two other groups of dancers to perform a tango.
To be able to perform the complex movements required by the dance, Williams uses a specially designed wheelchair, equipped with two metal arms with bicycle brakes attached to the wheels. The chair gives him the ability to raise both arms to dance with his partner and also to lean on the brakes to move and turn the chair.
“It’s such an intimate dance, you have to be so close to your partner,” Williams said. “So having this amount of control makes it easier to push and play with the movement.”
Williams, who lives in Humboldt Park, got his start in dance doing musical theatre. After college, she started dancing with Tango 21 Dance Company. She uses a wheelchair after having a spinal cord injury five years ago.
“There’s not much exposure for disabled dancers. Before my injury, I had no idea it was a thing,” Williams said of the importance of venues like DisFest.
Not limited to dance, the festival showcased creativity across a range of mediums, including acting, film and the visual arts, such as the multimedia works of Deanna Krueger.
Krueger Saturday’s work was created by painting on old medical X-ray and MRI film, which he allows to dry before tearing it apart and stitching the pieces back together.
Krueger even brought the film to the festival for other attendees to tear and cut.
“It’s cathartic,” she explained. “For some, they’ve had to deal with constant medical appointments where they’ve been prodded and prodded and probably had countless scans done. Today they can rip this film to vent their anger, their sadness”.
DisFest was created by Ladonna Freidheim through her non-profit organization ReinventAbility to celebrate the work of artists whose disabilities manifest themselves in different ways, not always in visible ways.
Six short films were also screened during the events, including “JMAXX and The Universal Language,” which depicted a teenager with autism learning hip-hop to communicate and express himself.
“It’s really important to show that disability isn’t always a wheelchair,” Freidheim said. “Just because someone is able to sustain their performance doesn’t mean they don’t have a disability.”