Photo Credit:

Andrew Balfour

Propeller Dance’s Renata Soutter on Dance and Social Change

Renata Soutter, Artistic Co-Director and Choreographer at Propeller Dance, is on a mission is to create meaningful art that has an impact on social change. Here, we talk to Renata about her goal and the ground-breaking work happening with with mixed-abilities artists.

DanceWorks: Can you tell us about the name Propeller Dance? Who came up with it? What does it refer to?

Renata: In 2002 I was invited to start a dance class for people with intellectual disabilities. Two things simultaneously happened – I fell in love with the work and I was horrified by the human rights gap that existed with so few opportunities for people with disability to participate in the arts, especially dance. I found allyship with Shara Weaver and Alan Shain and we evolved into forming our own dance company and training organization called Propeller Dance. We came up with the name to signify forward motion and movement. We celebrate and create dance-theatre with artists with a-typical life experiences and abilities. As a queer artist I valued a space where people could be who they are.

What was so exciting in the beginning, and still today, is the unique movement vocabulary that comes from a-typical minds and bodies, the joy of comradery and expectational care for the artistry and work, and each dancers’ integral role.

I’ve created my own utopia in many ways.

DanceWorks: How did Propeller Dance begin? What have been some of the challenges? What about some wonderful surprises?

Renata: The challenges have been to change the public’s perception, although that hasn’t been that hard – harder has been to feel welcomed by the dance community and some presenters, who may not understand or value the work that we do. But the beauty of being an “outsider” is that we’ve just built our own audiences and community of supporters who truly value our perspective and artistry.

Also time, it can move so quickly, and we need more time (than typical companies) to embrace the many complexities. I am renowned to say “do not collapse the complexity”. The challenge is often just working within societal norms. We are pegs of various shapes – triangles, circles, squares, diamonds, not really wanting to fit into any specifically shaped hole.

The surprises along the way are that, after close to fifteen years of doing this work, we are seeing shifts. Our work has made an impact. We see more openness, greater diversity and inclusion on stages, in audiences, in studios. Artists with disability are taking on greater leadership. Dancers within Propeller are now applying for their own grants to create their own independent works, and that is one of the desired outcomes. Ultimately, it is about the art and opening hearts and minds to see many options for being in the world. Building a healthier society that values difference and builds space for all.

It’s been a labour of love by so many people too, and Liz Winkelaar, Propeller’s Artistic Associate has been a pivotal player in the organization.

DanceWorks: Can you tell us about the two pieces touring to Toronto? Flesh and Spokes and Spasticus? 

Renata: We are so excited to bring these two repertoire pieces to Toronto. They are great companion pieces as Spasticus elucidates a part of Disability history, and delves into some of the atrocities people with disability have faced, while highlighting resilience and power. It is created by Liz Winkelaar out of Propeller’s first Emerging Choreographers with Disability Program. My piece, Flesh and Spokes is a “pure” contemporary dance piece that is like a massive sculpture of humanity in motion. It’s an abstract piece, that ultimately shows that we are all able, and can be in this wild world together, unified.

The inspiration for both pieces, choreographically, comes from the dancers. The dancers are essential collaborators to the creative process and the choreographers are akin to magical weavers sewing together offerings. We start with a movement spark, an idea, a premise and explore out from there. For Liz, her inspiration was the 1970s British punk star Ian Dury, an early disability rights activist.

The cast is 11 performers, some were part of Propeller from day one, Bella Bowes and Robert Chartier, and others are guest dancers new to the crew this year, Cee Ancheta. All are dedicated to art-making and the promotion of dancers, with and without disability working together to create a dance world that is more representative.

DanceWorks: Thank you, Renata.

DanceWorks will present Propeller Dance on March 13 and 14 at 7:30pm at the Fleck Dance Theatre. Tickets are available here.