Brandishing unique bodies, dance troupe triumphs

In this photo taken on Oct. 3, 2008, choreographer and dancer Heidi Latsky, center, directs a rehearsal of GIMP in New York. In GIMP, a performance choreographed by Latsky, a troupe of abled and disabled dancers explores beauty in its many forms. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK -- An hour before the curtain rises on the most important performance of her life, choreographer Heidi Latsky paces the stage, tortured by questions and doubts.

Will audiences understand her vision, and that of the performers they are about to see? Or will they find their performance too shocking, too disconcerting, too weird?

Will they applaud, or recoil?

Will they even show up?

Shattering perceptions

Latsky, 51, is best known as a choreographer and one-time principal dancer with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company. Her skill and stage presence have won national acclaim. But until 2006, when she received an unusual commission to compose a piece for a young woman with no fingers and no lower legs, Latsky had never worked with disabled performers.

What began as a huge leap of faith gradually evolved into a performance, and a troupe.

And a name: "GIMP," Latsky said, "is about shattering perceptions, about provoking people to think, really think, about body image and beauty and disability and dance."

Latsky's toughness is legendary. Dancers say no one pushes them harder, physically and emotionally, forcing them to mine something deep within themselves.

But how could Latsky demand faster turns from someone without legs? How could she ask people who had spent their entire lives controlling how they moved to relinquish that control?

In the end, Latsky said, the work became as much about trust as about dance: trust that they could mix two worlds -- dance and disability -- and forge a performance powerful enough to showcase the beauty of both universes, and transcend them.

Recruiting dancers

Her first recruit was a lanky 40-year-old, with long, stiff legs and a lurching gait that captivated Latsky the moment she saw it.

Lawrence Carter-Long, an advocate for the Disabilities Network of New York City, had never considered his atrophied legs to be anything but a frustrating distraction from the high-energy pursuits of his life. Born with cerebral palsy, Carter-Long has always relied on his strengths -- his wit, charm, good looks -- to compensate for the fact that falling is part of his life.

Even in his dreams, he had never imagined himself as a dancer.

And then, at a performance in 2007, Carter-Long met Latsky. Looking at him, she saw a face that reminded her of Nureyev and a gait that was, in its own way, as extraordinary as the famed dancer's leaps.

"I think your gait is beautiful," Latsky told a stunned Carter-Long. "I want to create a dance around the way you walk."

Rehearsals were grueling. His limbs ached. His feet bled. He fell constantly. But Carter-Long's confidence grew. And over time, his body changed -- as did his gait.

Beautiful, Latsky would exclaim. And Carter-Long felt it too, a sense of pride, of embracing his walk in a way that had never occurred to him before.

Inspired by tension

Jeffrey Freeze, a principal dancer in Latsky's company, could see it too. At 39, Freeze is a technically brilliant dancer who has performed all over the world. But when Freeze began trotting beside Carter-Long in rehearsal one day, his dancing life changed forever.

Watching them, Latsky had a vision.

What if she created a duet for the two men -- one that highlighted their different walks. She knew the terror Carter-Long would feel paired beside Freeze's virtuosity. But Freeze would be equally unnerved by having to slow down. The tension would inspire the dance.

And so "Two Men Walking" was born, in which Freeze soars and struts while Carter-Long stalks after him.

By the summer of 2007 the performance included "Two Men Walking" and a frenetically paced duet by Latsky and Freeze. Christina Briggs, a professional dancer who had worked with Latsky for years, had joined the troupe and they were starting to perform in small theater workshops.

But Latsky knew GIMP needed more.

And then a beautiful young woman shuffled into her studio, a woman whom Latsky sensed immediately belonged in GIMP.

Catherine Long radiates a soft-spoken reserve that belies her edgy artistic style. At 37, she long ago came to terms with the body she was born with, the perceptions she must deal with every day.

"People see what is not there long before they see what's there," said Long, an English performance artist who was born without a left arm.

She was introduced to Carter-Long through mutual friends and, after corresponding by e-mail they finally met in London. On subsequent trips to New York, Long's quiet presence became a fixture at rehearsals.

Long had never worked her body so hard, never felt such pain. But she has evolved into a luminous dancer. And she believes that GIMP is changing perceptions far greater than only in dance.

Big dreams

"GIMP allows people to see me as I see myself -- strong, fierce, sexy," said Lezlie Frye, whose shortened left arm bends into what she describes as a knotty, treelike limb.

Frye is the spitfire of the troupe, loud, energetic, passionate about everything. The 30-year-old doctoral student at New York University has long explored her body through sport, performance and poetry.

By November 2008 the troupe have performed excerpts in Vermont and a full run in Albuquerque. But they know if GIMP is to succeed in the dance world, it needs reviews in New York.

By now Latsky is dreaming of taking GIMP it all over the country, all over world.

For three nights in March GIMP electrified the Grand Street theater on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Audiences clapped and cheered and cried and standing ovations continued long after the performance had ended.

People didn't want to leave the theater, didn't want to break the spell.

The dancers were exhausted and exhilarated. All their work, all their faith, all their pain, had amounted to this singular triumph on stage. There was something both overwhelming and unsettling about it all.

Long wept. Frye glowed. Carter-Long was mobbed by admirers. Freeze and others were swept up in hugs.

"Bravo!" strangers cried. "Magical!"