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Souls in Motion

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Dance is for everybody, say the folks who participate at Polaris Dance Theatre: In background, choreographer Yulia Arakelyan and Sarah Lakey (purple shirt); in foreground, Kathy Coleman and Sydney Skov (gray shirt).A bacteria took away her legs and hands.

It did not take away desire.

Kiera Brinkley dances, like all the others in the Polaris Dance Theatre All-Access Program. The feeling flows out of her, through heart and soul, manifesting itself in expression and movement. No legs, no hands? No limitations for the 19-year-old Portland woman who makes beautiful dance in her own way.

“Dance is about lines and shapes and space,” says Robert Guitron, Polaris artistic director. “When you watch her move, even though she lacks what you would consider lines or limbs, she creates them in space. Very few dancers with limbs have that ability. She’s a dancer.”

“Able-bodied” dancer Sarah Lakey shared the stage with Brinkley in the Polaris “X-Posed” show in June. She remembers the first time she and Brinkley danced together under the direction of Yulia Arakelyan, a Portland choreographer and the first wheelchair user to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in dance from the University of Washington. Arakelyan emphasizes improvisation, which Lakey witnessed in her first duet with Brinkley.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT -  Free expression and movement went to another level once Kiera Brinkley, 19, left her wheelchair behind and danced like everybody else.“We didn’t know what the piece would be, but she hopped out of her chair and we were improv-ing,” Lakey says. “I could sense her movement, and she has this full, amazing, beautiful movements. I was, like, ‘Oh, this is going to be awesome.’ Learning how to dance with each other was pretty amazing and awesome. She has this attitude of, ‘Let’s check it out, let’s give it a try.’ I love working with people who are open to exploring.’”

For three years, Polaris has welcomed all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities. Guitron views dancing as an endeavor and celebration, not meant for only skinny people in tights and tutus, but for all in the community to enjoy. Everybody with a beating heart has a dance inside them. Express yourself. Move yourself.

“I can show people that everybody can dance,” says Alexis Jewell, an All-Access Program attendee and dancer for 13 years.

About 30 people regularly attend program classes at Polaris, with up to 80 from around the city taking part at times.

Often, “altered ability” dancers perform with Polaris members. Just to see them dancing with the more physically fortunate, side-by-side ...

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Colleen Genuine, Polaris All-Access director (right), works in a class with Yulia Arakelyan, a University of Washington dance grad, accomplished choreographer and dancer.“Hugely compelling stories,” says Colleen Genuine, All-Access Program director.

“It’s an element of human connection,” she adds. “For anybody, that’s powerful. As we recognize that our community is not made up of all ‘able-bodied people,’ the art of dance can cross all levels of stereotypes and demographics. It doesn’t fit into a container box. We’re all able to express ourselves through movement. Just moving our bodies with the connection and movement and intention becomes a very rewarding physical experience.”

Brinkley’s legs and hands were amputated at age 2. It didn’t take long for her to hear the music and learn to rhythmically move in the wheelchair and, by middle school, a teacher had convinced her to get out of the chair and dance. It was a big step forward.

She feels free, moving about on the floor.

“I’m able to do more, express myself better,” she says. “I have to figure out ways to express myself with little, but to make it big. ... Music inspires my movement, watching other people dance inspires my emotion. That’s different.”

A 2011 Jefferson High grad who choreographed dance at her school, Brinkley joined Polaris and became a professional company member. She’s also the All-Access Program coordinator, and she shares her thoughts and feelings with the aspiring dancers who enter the Polaris studio.

“It’s something more people should be involved in,” Brinkley says. “Everybody’s welcome. You learn so much about different people and what they’re capable of, and you learn about yourself and what you’re open to.”

When she danced with Lakey at “X-Posed,” Brinkley could feel that the duet “shocked the audience.” But, “it felt completely natural to me. We connected so easily. Made it a lot of fun.” Brinkley will dance in Polaris’ next performance, Oct. 18 to 20 at Lincoln Hall.

Lakey was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in June. Now she has an Achilles tendon injury. Although clearly not in the same condition as others around her, she can relate to them.

“I came from the ballet world, where there was such an emphasis on one particular physique. This perfectionist culture,” she says. “It zapped me, sucked me dry. I quit dancing for a few years, but when I found Polaris, it was the perfect combination of professional company of different shapes and sizes, but they all know how to move. Have so much soul. It was so inspiring. Then, it’s not just a dance company, it’s a community around it.”

Arakelyan and her husband, a wheelchair user himself, teach through their club, Wobbly Dance. She knows the importance of creating an environment for anybody to feel comfortable, where they’re not going to be judged. She joined the integrated Light Motion Dance in Seattle and has performed professionally before for London’s Candoco Dance Company. She gets a thrill from teaching the “altered ability” and “able-bodied” alike. If some people express themselves through arm movement, or even chair movement only, so be it. It’s dancing. It’s time and tempo and feel.

“I try to give people enough structure to improvise and find their own movement style,” says Arakelyan, who doesn’t want to talk about what put her in the wheelchair. It’s who she is. “I love working with people with different body variations. It makes the choreography so much more exciting. They bring so much more into it. No prescribed movements, just bringing your authentic self.”

Guitron concurs. He compares a dance performance to an orchestra, in which different instruments such as the tuba, bassoon, violin and cello provide different effects. People of different shapes and abilities provide for compelling dance.

“Everybody should have the right to experience movement and expression,” he says. “We want to create a mixed abilities company. A professional dancer is part of a small group that refines the craft, practices and harnesses the skills and techniques to do special performances in front of an audience. But everybody should perform. Everyone should feel free to express and dance. That’s the idea behind our program.

“It opens the world to possibilities not limited to conventional thought or perception.”