On a May afternoon at the New 42nd Street Studios in Times Square, dancer and choreographer Kitty Lunn was rehearsing a piece that required her to push herself up off the floor into a standing position. It might have been a throwaway moment for most dancers, but for Lunn it was rife with meaning.
Twenty-two years ago, Lunn’s dance career appeared to be over. Shortly before she was to perform in her first Broadway show, she slipped on a patch of ice and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking her back. Pieces of her shattered vertebrae pierced her spinal cord, and Lunn, who had studied ballet from the age of 8 and danced with The Washington Ballet, was suddenly a paraplegic.
These days, Lunn does most of her dancing in a flexible, lightweight wheelchair designed by her husband, actor Andrew Macmillan. She controls the chair by shifting her weight, and her expressive upper body articulates all the movements that other dancers might make with their legs and feet. Last month, she celebrated 50 years of dance by performing with her company, Infinity Dance Theater, at Joyce SoHo. Founded in 1995, the company includes dancers with and without disabilities, and has toured in the U.S. and abroad in addition to its regular New York seasons.
Beyond dancing with and choreographing for her company, Lunn is a stage and television actress, an advocate for performing artists with disabilities, and a dance educator who trains both students and teachers in her rigorous technique. She spoke with the Brooklyn Rail about her life-changing injury and how she learned, recalling advice given to her long ago by Agnes de Mille, to dance in the body she has.
Michelle Vellucci (Rail): You’ve said in the past that after your accident, you tried very hard to stop wanting to dance. What was that period of recovery like for you?
Kitty Lunn: It seemed at that time that it was hopeless. If I couldn’t walk, how was I going to dance? So I tried to forget about it. I was in acute care in the hospital for almost three years, and during that time I had five major spinal surgeries. I was very de-conditioned and very weak. I was a noodle. I couldn’t sit up by myself, wash myself, feed myself, or anything.
I was on a waiting list to go into an in-patient rehab facility, but I had been in the hospital for so long that I really was in burnout. So, they sent me home with a physical therapist to come to my house until a bed opened up in a rehab hospital. By the luck of the draw, just at random, [the physical therapist who] was next up on the rotation was Shaw Bronner, and she had been a dancer. We really hit it off. She came to my apartment five days a week for five hours a day for five years. P.S., I never went to rehab.
BR: What was it like getting used to using the wheelchair?
KL: The wheelchair was presented to me as freedom and independence. It was not presented to me as a downer. And I think that is so important. So often the wheelchair is presented as a negative thing. But the real truth of the matter is that without my wheelchair, I would have been a bed-ridden invalid. Shaw taught me how to transfer from the hospital bed to the wheelchair, and then we practiced rolling up and down in my living room. It’s not easy to roll a wheelchair, and my arms were very weak. The day I was able to transfer from my bed to the chair, go out the front door, take the elevator and get the mail by myself—it was a major, huge breakthrough. Because if I could do that, I could get out.
BR: What made you decide to dance again?
KL: Shaw used to take ballet class a couple times a week with Ernesto Corvino, and I went to watch it. Then, American Ballet Theatre was doing Sleeping Beauty, and I took Shaw for her birthday. I hadn’t been able to watch dance for a long time; it was a little too painful. But watching Shaw take classes and going to the ballet, I knew I had to find a way to go back.
BR: That must have been exciting and terrifying.
KL: When I was a 16-year-old ballerina in Washington, D.C., Agnes de Mille came to the Washington Ballet as a guest teacher. Now, I never had what we would consider a perfect ballet body, and I wanted to know if I could possibly have a bone transplant so that my legs would be longer and I would be six feet tall on pointe. Miss de Mille took my face in her hands and said, “Kitty dear, you have to learn to dance in the body you have.” Today, I can’t point my toes, I can’t hold my stomach in. I have cellulite that you wouldn’t believe—all of these things that by normal dance standards are totally unacceptable. But if I wanted to dance, this was the body I was going to have to accept.
BR: How did you prepare to go back to class?
KL: We started transposing ballet technique to work for me in the chair. And we set a date that I would try to go back. By no means did I do this by myself—by myself I would have been a blob of protoplasm. I had plenty of psychotherapy. And Andrew’s support was extraordinary.
BR: What was the first class like?
KL: I knew there was a ballet class at noon on Saturdays, and I went. I put my money on the table. And in that class were Vladimir Malakhov and Paloma Herrera, and they made a place for me at the barre. And I knew I was going to be O.K.
BR: You mentioned that your husband custom-makes the chairs for you and your fellow dancers. How did he develop them?
KL: At the beginning, I would rent space and go in with the chair I was in, and I’d roll around and try to transpose what I knew. And I would say, “It needs to do this,” or, “it’s not doing that.” And Andrew would lie on his belly and watch the footprints the wheel made and figure out how he might be able to modify it so it would do what I was saying I needed it to do. We had no one to help us. We simply made it up. And because everybody is different, the chairs have to be custom made for each dancer. It’s like dance shoes—it isn’t one size fits all. Even if you have six people with spinal cord injury, that doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable. Andrew keeps promising he’s going to write a book.
BR: When you founded Infinity, were there other mixed-ability companies out there?
KL: Yes. But what was happening then and what’s still happening now is that the non-disabled dancers dance fairly well, and the dancers in the chairs get no training and are kind of rolling around with no technique and no kinesthetic understanding of not only how dance technique works but how their own bodies work. So that became my mission, to show that disability does not signify inability and that you can have professional standards if you provide training. I make [dancers] conform to standards, I make them study technique, I make them learn a craft. Simply because you have a disability does not excuse you from the process.
BR: What kind of response have you gotten?
KL: I found out about the dilemma of diversity. I became acquainted with disability activists and advocates who want to be just like everybody else, except they don’t want to be held to any standards. I don’t get huge support from the disability community, because if I do it and I tell them they can do it, they have to stop whining about no one giving them the opportunity to do it.
BR: You also train teachers to work with disabled students. Is the goal to incorporate the students into mainstream classes?
KL: Yes. The goal is to include them in the work that the teachers are already doing. When you’re dealing with very young children, sometimes it is best that the first experience not be too mainstream, because you have to figure out what the child is capable of doing in a fun way. But as they get a little older, you want them to work in the world they’re going to live in. And that’s not only for the student with the disability but for the non-disabled student as well. If they go through their lives without ever encountering disability, then we don’t change perceptions.
BR: Would you say that your technique has taken root?
KL: I have started many other programs, and I’ve trained other people to take it over. The problem is, though, not that non-disabled people can’t teach this, but it’s always better when you can have a person with a disability do it, not only as a role model but with kid. It kind of puts a hole in the “you don’t know what it’s like” excuse.
BR: Are there many disabled dancers out there who are doing the work?
KL: There are some. I brought a boy over who’d broken his neck. He’s from Australia, now he’s teaching in London. First they’ve got to make peace with who they are. Then and only then can they help someone else.
Michelle Vellucci is a Manhattan-based dance writer and book critic.