Heidi Latsky wants you to stare at her dancers. The dancers themselves want you to look. Go ahead. You know you want to. One of them doesn’t have an arm or kneecaps. Another has only four fingers. Still another lacks legs. The sight of missing body parts makes you feel slightly uncomfortable. Yet their movement is hypnotic, rhapsodic, sensual. You’re in conflict.
That’s exactly how you’re supposed to feel while watching the GIMP Project, the most recent work of New York-based dancer/choreographer Latsky, 51. It includes both dancers with traditional and nontraditional bodies. Some trained as dancers for years. Others are new to the craft. The result is an arresting and boundary-breaking portrayal of just what the human body can do when given the opportunity.
Latsky knows what it means to be “other” in the dance community. When she began dancing at 20, she was told she was too old to be taken seriously. Instead of heeding the naysayers, Latsky kept practicing and, about seven years after her first professional gig, landed a spot with the renowned Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
In her six years there, she worked with dancers of all sizes and looks, an experience that upended her traditional view. Later in Latsky’s career, a woman named Lisa Bufano approached her seeking a choreographer. Bufano, whose legs and fingers were amputated after a bacterial infection in her early twenties, performs using prostheses and stilts. Latsky calls her experience with Bufano “profound.” “What excited me was her extreme vulnerability and her ability to be very present,” she says in a phone interview. “It brought a lot of richness to her performance.”
Latksy began to think of pieces that involved people with different types of limbs, and the GIMP Project evolved. The company features eight dancers of different body types. Latsky says she hopes that’s just what audiences see — dancers, regardless of which parts are there and which aren’t. “I didn’t see what wasn’t there. I saw what was there,” she says.
The name of the project is meant both to provoke and to explore the different definitions of the term “gimp”: interwoven cord, spirit or vigor, to walk with a limp, a cripple. The name gets people’s attention, Latsky says, but the dancing keeps it.
The pieces are not heavy handed, confrontational or depressing. While Latsky says she’s learned much about accessibility and the politics of disability from her dancers, the work spurs discussion without overtly pressing on those themes. “We’re giving people permission to watch. It’s very empowering for the performers,” Latsky says. “It’s their choice to be looked at. They’re saying, I’m giving you permission to stare. You can really look at me.”
Latsky says her work is not meant to show that disabled people can do things. The dancers don’t want to be seen as inspirational simply because of their difference. “To be inspired by default is a no-no in this community,” Latsky says. “To be inspired by something that has substance — that’s a really great thing.”