Three dancers are negotiating how they will hoist Berto Robie into the air during the final scene of their upcoming dance-theater production at Prince George's Publick Playhouse.
The choreographers at Seize the Day!, a modern dance troupe that includes mentally and physically challenged performers, originally toyed with the idea of strapping Robie, who uses a wheelchair, into a harness and lifting him into the air. But first they'll try something simpler.
"I'm not that symmetrical," warns Robie, 49, as he raises his arms from his wheelchair, allowing the three men to lift him into the air. After a bit of a struggle, he's far above their heads.
"I feel pretty comfortable," he says glancing briefly at the hardwood floor. "So I can be turned around to face the audience and give them that forlorn look."
Since Robie began performing with Seize the Day! four years ago, he has extended himself more than he ever imagined.
"It's not a position that I get to be in very much, looking over six heads," the dancer later says.
The Arlington man, who works as a secretary at the Department of Commerce, lost the use of his legs after he had polio when he was 3. This weekend, he will appear with the rest of the troupe, which includes five dancers with mental or physical disabilities and 11 dancers without, in the company's Publick Playhouse performance. (It's the first time the troupe has had such a large venue to itself.)
Artistic director Patty Krauss founded the troupe after working at a special education center in Clinton seven years ago. She organized her students there for a production of the "Nutcracker" and was astounded by their response.
"There was such a spark there," Krauss recalls. "Some of them were nonverbal, but you could tell they were enjoying it. They were being stimulated."
A lifelong dancer who had studied at Point Park College in Pittsburgh and danced with various professional dance companies, Krauss used a variety of methods to recruit members. She asked many of her colleagues to join the troupe, and took out newspaper advertisements calling for differently abled dancers and actors, no experience needed.
Krauss says Seize the Day! is one of just 10 mixed-abilities dance companies in the country. Since its inception, the troupe has performed at various schools, conferences and festivals in the Washington area.
"He Speaks for Trees" was adapted by Krauss from Dr. Seuss's "The Lorax." The parable recounts the struggle between the Once-ler, who wants to exploit the forest, and the Lorax (played by Robie), who speaks for the trees.
The program is sponsored in part by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Prince George's Arts Council." The troupe will be accompanied by Bill Davis on keyboard and percussionist Sam Turner.
The wheelchairs add a new dimension to modern dance, Krauss says. For instance, they allow dancers to perform movements that are otherwise impossible. At one point during rehearsal, Krauss, who plays a swan, got onto Robie's lap and rolled across the stage.
"We don't have that gliding motion on our feet," Krauss says, noting that the company's able-bodied dancers often use skateboards, rollerblades and shopping carts as well as wheelchairs on stage.
The dancers hope such differences will help them gain recognition for their artistic contributions to the world of dance rather than the novelty of being a mixed-abilities troupe.
"We really want to make it clear that it isn't about putting people with disabilities on stage because it's a nice thing to do," Krauss says. "When the novelty wears off, there better be decent dance work there."
Brooke Kidd, co-owner of Joe's Dance Emporium in Mount Rainier, who plays a swan in the production, says the company is well on its way.
"In some ways, they access the characters better," she says. "I usually see dancers trying to approach them as a dancer and they try to be pretty. Here, they try to approach the characters as trees."
Seize the Day! performs "He Speaks for Trees" Thursday at 11 a.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Prince George's Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. Admission $15 for adults, $8 for children, seniors and students. Call 301-277-1710.
CAPTION: Seize the Day!, a dance troupe that has performers with and without disabilities, will perform Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Prince George's Publick Playhouse.