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Bodies of Work Celebrates Disabled Artists

CHICAGO -- Bodies of Work: The Chicago Festival of Disability Arts and Culture, a citywide arts festival running April 20-30, has been three years in the making. Encompassing theatre, dance, music, spoken word, film, art, and educational programs, the festival is organized in part by Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs, and department officials believe it's the first event of its kind in the United States, at least in terms of scope and range if not concept.

In all, the festival will offer 90 performances, screenings, exhibits, lectures, and symposia at 23 venues, ranging from the Beverly Arts Center in the city's far south to the Chicago Cultural Center in the Loop to locations in the northern and western suburbs. The Art Institute of Chicago (and its Gene Siskel Film Center), the Jane Addams Hull House Center for Arts & Culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Science and Industry, the South Shore Cultural Center, and the University of Illinois at Chicago are among the hosting institutions.

Victory Gardens Theater and the Museum of Contemporary Art head the list of performance presenters. Last May, the Los Angeles Times cited the artist development workshops of the Victory Gardens' Access Project as the only program by a mainstream U.S. theatre devoted to theatre artists with disabilities. For Bodies of Work, Victory Gardens will offer closed captioning, audio descriptions, and signed performances of its current mainstage show, Melanie Marnich's Cradle of Man. The theatre will also host Mat Fraser, a self-described "thalidomide ninja" from the U.K., April 23-24 in his solo piece, Sealboy: Freak.

In addition to visual arts programs, the Museum of Contemporary Art will also host performers, including Lynn Manning, who will present his autobiographical work Weights, April 21-22. Blinded in a Hollywood bar shooting at age 23, Manning went on to become a silver medalist in the Paralympics and a world champion in blind judo. A noted actor and writer, he is also president of the Firehouse Theater Company and co-founder and literary manager of the Watts Village Theater Company, both in Los Angeles.

The museum will also present Traffic, a world premiere by conceptual dance-performance artist Bill Shannon, who dances on crutches. Based in New York, Shannon is a Guggenheim fellow known on the hip-hop circuit as "CrutchMaster." For Traffic, the audience will ride a tour bus (with a live DJ) and follow Shannon down the street as he locomotes to his choreography by means of crutches and skateboard.

Other live performances will include Erasing the Distance: The People I Know, dramatizing the real-life struggles of people with mental-health issues, directed by Monica Payne (Jane Addams Hull House, April 21-30); Mirror of Unique: Beautiful Me, Beautiful Us, created and performed by patients at Thresholds, a psychiatric rehabilitation center (Chicago Cultural Center, April 7-30); and Momenta with Dance>Detour, presenting performances of "physically integrated" dance (Duncan YMCA, April 21-23). The otherwise independent Chicago Improv Festival will offer Bodies of (Comedy) Work, an evening of deaf improvisational comedy featuring Austin, Texas, performer Terry Galloway and the Los Angeles deaf improv troupe Ice Worm, on April 26.

Bodies of Work also includes Chicago's International Deaf and Disability Film Festival, which will offer dozens of short and feature-length works, including the experimental short "Frida Kahlo's Corset" by Liz Crow and the feature documentary Murderball, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, an award winner at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival about quadriplegic rugby players.

Bodies of Work was conceived by a small group of disabled artists who took the idea to the Museum of Contemporary Art, according to Eva Silverman, director of collaborative programs for the Department of Cultural Affairs. "The MCA liked the idea but thought it should be bigger, so they came to us," she said. Silverman noted that each presenting organization is absorbing fees and venue costs for the artists it's hosting, and there have also been significant in-kind contributions. The city's cash allocation for the entire event is a modest $75,000, most of which has gone into promotion and housing.

Additional major sponsorship for the festival has come from the Chicago Community Trust, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the Illinois Arts Council, Bank of America, and Kraft.

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