While his nose will still grow, and he’ll still dream of becoming a real boy, Pinocchio gets his first physically integrated treatment in Cleveland in December. Five wheelchair and eight stand-up dancers from Dancing Wheels perform the world premiere of Ginger Thatcher’s Pinocchio December 2–5 at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts at Saint Ignatius High School.
Thatcher, who danced with Cleveland Ballet and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, has worked as a freelance choreographer for 20 years on Broadway, in opera and ballet. She agreed to create the one-hour show for Cleveland-based Dancing Wheels, even though she had no prior experience working with dancers in wheelchairs.
For advice, she sought out Kitty Lunn, artistic director of physically integrated Infinity Dance Theater and herself a wheelchair dancer. “I had to get into a chair and wheel around to really understand the possibilities of movement,” Thatcher says. It was important to understand that the location of the spinal injury dictates what movement can be done and how much the dancer can move his or her chair. “There are those in chairs who can stand or do floor work, then get back into their chairs. There are so many combinations,” she says. “The stand-up dancers are used to working with their wheelchair counterparts. They were able to show me better ways to make my images happen.”
The original story of Pinocchio is different from the Disney version, and Thatcher used elements from both. “All children will remember that his nose grows, he turns into a donkey and he’s swallowed by a whale,” she says. “But in the original it’s a shark, so I have shark teeth come out of the dark during my black-light ballet.” She also showcases several styles of dance. “The weasels are my tribute to Fosse, and we’ve got tap-dancing donkeys,” she adds.
Thatcher had only three weeks to put the show together. “It was awesome that Ginger came in with little knowledge of physically integrated dance and created a whole ballet,” says Kristen Stilwell, a stand-up dancer who plays Geppetto. “There is so much to learn. If you don’t have that relationship between the sit-down and stand-up together, the partnering will not be as effective onstage.”
Dancing Wheels was founded 30 years ago by Mary Verdi-Fletcher, a pioneer in physically integrated dance. She created the Dancing Wheels School in 1990.
Ryan Dick, a stand-up dancer who plays Pinocchio, hopes the production will encourage kids in the audience to follow their dreams no matter what. “I’m excited to bring the character to life and see their faces light up,” he says. For more: dancingwheels.org
Brianne Carlon is a freelance writer living in Youngstown, OH.
Photo by Dale Dong, courtesy of Dancing Wheels