VERTIGO. It's the sensation of falling, even when two feet remain firmly planted on the ground. It's the disconcerting and very real feeling of being off balance. It's also the moniker a Jerusalem-based dance company chose to represent both physical instability and the precariousness of emotional situations that the company mines in its bold and highly adept choreography.
The company selected Vertigo as its name after the success of a popular first duet that co-founder and choreographer Adi Sha'al created based on his own vertiginous experiences as a pilot in the Israeli air force, explained Sha'al. "The sensation of vertigo, dizziness, loss of control . . .," he said of being airborne under extreme conditions, "you don't know where it's earth and where it's sky." The duet, "Vertigo," built around the concept of uncontrolled spinning not just in the air but with fellow dancer and company co-founder Noa Wertheim, exposes as well a relationship gone awry.
Four years ago, when Sha'al and Wertheim invited British-based choreographer Adam Benjamin to Jerusalem to create a new work, the company's seven professional dancers learned again what it means to lose control, regain balance and share in a journey into the unknown. Benjamin specializes in working with dancers of mixed abilities, and he incorporated five additional dancers confined to wheelchairs into his work, "The Power of Balance." Documentary filmmakers Amit Mann and Tom Barka'i joined the choreographer and dancers in the rehearsal studio, intimately recording the tremendous challenges and the small and large triumphs of this company of dancers. Throughout, vertigo took on new and unexpected meanings: Company members lifted dancers from wheelchairs and carried them in emotionally packed duets and trios.
Choreographer Benjamin seeks to erase preconceived ideas of disability and ability by allowing the professional dancers to use canes and wheelchairs and inviting the movements of the disabled dancers to inform the work. In the process, Benjamin demands that viewers rethink fundamental assumptions of who can dance and what makes a dancer beautiful.
On Tuesday, "The Power of Balance," the award-winning film based on this collaboration, screens at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. After the screening, the Northern Virginia-based Rhythms of Hope Dance Company performs its eponymous signature work. Marianne Talbot, Rhythms of Hope founder and director, began teaching dance and movement classes to individuals with brain injuries and neurological disabilities a decade ago. Once that initial session finished, her students didn't want to give up the skills they worked so assiduously to attain.
"I realized I had a responsibility to keep them challenged," she said of her students. "[Regular] studios weren't offering what we were offering. When you go into a typical dance class, you're expected to do a defined first position and plie," she says, referring to terminology for a basic ballet position and knee bend. "In our class," she explained, "whatever first position you have is yours and that's it. My students define their movements by what they can do, whether it's from a wheelchair or standing with their weight just on one leg and using a cane."
Talbot, who served as a rehabilitation counselor and case manager for many years, sees noticeable benefits for the Rhythms of Hope participants, who began to enhance their cognitive and abstract thinking after working on choreographed dances. But audiences, too, benefit. Initially viewers may have difficulty seeing beyond the disability, Talbot acknowledges: "Many people aren't used to a dance company for people with disabilities. Some people say, 'They can't really be good if they're disabled.' " Talbot bristles and asks rhetorically, "What in the world does that mean?"
"THE POWER OF BALANCE" AND RHYTHMS OF HOPE DANCE COMPANY -- Tuesday at 7 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center's Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, 16th and Q streets NW. 800-494-8497.