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In Diagnosis of a Faun, Tamar Rogoff’s faun steps out of his mythical world to interface with the world of medicine. As the faun moves through the seemingly disparate spheres of the operating room and the forest in the company of dancers, doctors, humans and nymphs, the curse of separation between medicine and art is gently lifted. Gregg Mozgala, an actor who has been training with Rogoff for over a year, makes his dance debut in the principal role of the faun. In fashioning the faun, Rogoff draws her choreographic inspiration from Mozgala’s first-hand experience with Cerebral Palsy. Dr. Don Kollisch, a Family Physician, will perform a classical pas de deux with Lucie Baker who plays a nymph. Dancer Emily Pope-Blackman plays the part of a doctor that navigates the divide between her and her patient. Rogoff’s choreographic language reveals each performer’s unique and well-honed expertise and creates juxtapositions in partnering that set them at each other’s mercy. Rogoff developed and researched the medical layers of this piece in a two year association with Phillip Bauman, renowned orthopedic surgeon for the NYC Ballet and ABT. Robert Eggers designs the costumes and sets, which include the faun’s hilltop and the anatomy theater, brought to life by the lighting designer Tony Giovannetti. The music of Jean Sibelius is set within a sound score by Leon Rothenberg.
Tamar Rogoff is a choreographer who explores the outer limits of how people negotiate extreme circumstances. She combines and juxtaposes unlikely company members, always on the look out for magical and tender ways to tell difficult stories. Rogoff’s large scale site works, films, and more traditional proscenium performances house her life-long experimental process to search for balance in the ungainly positions in which she finds herself. Angle of Ascent was performed on a tower rising 25 feet above the plaza in Lincoln Center, while huge water tanks were built there for In Deep. The Ivye Project (1994) took place in a forest in Belarus, surrounding the mass graves of Rogoff’s relatives and others killed in the Holocaust. This later became the subject of the documentary made by Rogoff and Daisy Wright called Summer in Ivye, which was screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Demeter’s Daughter, another large scale site-work performed on the streets of the lower East Side, used community gardens, rooftops, and an abandoned schoolyard. Rogoff’s proscenium piece, Daughter of a Pacifist Soldier, was based on the year-long relationship between her company and a community of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 2005, Rogoff choreographed a solo dance piece at P.S.122 for actress Claire Danes entitled Christina Olson: American Model. In 2007, Rogoff choreographed Edith & Jenny, an interdisciplinary work for Danes and Ariel Flavin. Rogoff has taught for many years at P.S. 122 and at NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing. Six years ago, she founded the arts program at Solar1, an environmental education and arts center, where Rogoff is currently artistic director. She is a four-time recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has been generously funded and commissioned by Dancing in the Streets, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Rockefeller MAP Grant, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Harkness Foundation, New York Theater Workshop’s Suitcase Fund, VSA arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Currently, as a Guggenheim Fellow, Rogoff is working on a documentary about the training of Gregg Mozgala, as he prepares to dance the role of the Faun. Rogoff’s methods of release through unorthodox body practices address Mozgala’s cerebral palsy, as together they forge an intimate and vibrant relationship.
La MaMa Experimental Theatre presents in association with Tamar Rogoff Performance Projects Diagnosis of a Faun, commissioned by VSA arts. In June 2010, Diagnosis of a Faun will be performed at the Kennedy Center as part of the 2010 International VSA arts Festival.
Learning His Body, Learning to Dance
by Neil Genzlinger, New York Times
Gregg Mozgala, a 31-year-old actor with cerebral palsy, had 12 years of physical therapy while he was growing up. But in the last eight months, a determined choreographer with an unconventional résumé has done what all those therapists could not: She has dramatically changed the way Mr. Mozgala walks.
In the process, she has changed his view of himself and of his possibilities.
Mr. Mozgala and the choreographer, Tamar Rogoff, have been working since last winter on a dance piece called “Diagnosis of a Faun.” It is to have its premiere on Dec. 3 at La MaMa Annex in the East Village, but the more important work of art may be what Ms. Rogoff has done to transform Mr. Mozgala’s body.
“I have felt things that I felt were completely closed off to me for the last 30 years,” he said. “The amount of sensation that comes through the work has been totally unexpected and is really quite wonderful.”
Cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder in which the brain does not send the proper signals to the muscles, affects gait and other movements. Those with severe cases use wheelchairs.
Mr. Mozgala’s condition is less severe but disruptive enough to have caused him to walk for most of his life like “a human velociraptor,” as he put it: up on his toes, lower extremities turned in, seesawing from side to side to maintain balance.
“My knees were going in, my hips were totally rotated inward,” Mr. Mozgala said. “Gravity was just taking me down. So my upper body — arms and chest — overcompensated, curling back and up.”
That is how he looked when Ms. Rogoff saw him in March 2008 playing the male lead in a production of “Romeo and Juliet” by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a group whose shows mix actors with disabilities and those without. Ms. Rogoff has often worked outside normal dance parameters — with prison inmates, for instance — and knew immediately that she wanted to try to create a piece for Mr. Mozgala.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do for him,” she said, “but I just knew he was inspiring to me.”
Originally, she envisioned a simple study, maybe 10 minutes long. Mr. Mozgala’s expectations when he agreed to the project were equally narrow: he said that he thought that she would either merely create a dance that made use of the physical abilities he already had or, after seeing his limitations, tell him, “Thanks but no thanks.”
Once they began working together, though, Ms. Rogoff realized that a broader approach was needed.
“Every time he tried to move in a way that wasn’t specific to his habitual pattern, he would fall down or just not know how to address it,” she said, “because he had a certain amount of patterning linked to his C.P., and I was asking him to step out of these patterns. I realized I couldn’t ask him to do that unless I supported it with a lot of body knowledge.”
She introduced Mr. Mozgala to a tension-releasing shaking technique, and it was immediately revelatory.
“My body just really took to it,” Mr. Mozgala said. “I did that for about 20 or 30 minutes, and when I stood up, I was walking completely differently. My feet were flat on the ground.”
They knew they were onto something. They began doing intensive one-on-one sessions they call body work, Ms. Rogoff using her knowledge of the body and dance-training techniques to help Mr. Mozgala “find” individual bones, muscles and tendons that he had had no command of before.
They started at the top and worked down — sternum, sacrum, knees — with Mr. Mozgala’s body and brain opening paths of communication that had not existed.
“There’s a lot of howling, screaming, crying, sweating,” Ms. Rogoff said. But “we often have these huge eureka moments.”
The other day, for instance, it was brain, meet lower-leg tendon.
“I said today, ‘I can feel my Achilles,’ ” Mr. Mozgala said. “You have to realize, I have never felt my Achilles before.”
Dr. Stephen A. Paget, chief of rheumatology at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, who has been acting as a sort of sounding board for Ms. Rogoff during the project, said the changes being wrought in Mr. Mozgala support a relatively new way of thinking about neurological impairments.
“In the past, people thought that a neurological deficit was fixed and immutable,” Dr. Paget said. “Now there’s this whole concept of neuroplasticity: the neurological system has this ability to change itself and constantly grow.”
Apparently Mr. Mozgala’s has done just that. Before, his gait was extreme enough that it would draw stares on the street. (“The lurch,” he and Ms. Rogoff have come to call it.) Now, when he is fully concentrating, a passer-by might have to look twice to realize he has a disability at all.
Unlike his earlier physical therapists, he said, Ms. Rogoff has given him knowledge of his body and specific instructions that he can employ while going about his everyday life: “Sternum down, tailbone up,” and so on.
“I have the key now,” he said. “Before, I was always being manipulated by someone else.”
Ms. Rogoff, whose father was a doctor, said that she knew little about cerebral palsy when she and Mr. Mozgala began, and that she had made a point of not learning too much. “That way I didn’t have any ideas about what he could and couldn’t do,” she said.
The physical changes Mr. Mozgala has experienced have had ramifications beyond the gym and the studio. Since high school, he has had a comical routine he would employ when he fell (“falling with style,” he called it) as a defense mechanism, to get people on his side; that is now gone.
So are the swings of self-image in which he would go from not caring if people were staring at him to feeling like “John Merrick on Fleet Street,” as he put it.
As Mr. Mozgala changed, so did Ms. Rogoff’s concept for the dance. The 10-minute study she had envisioned is now a work of more than an hour, with a cast of four. The piece has antecedents in “Afternoon of a Faun,” the Nijinsky ballet. Mr. Mozgala plays a 5,000-year-old Faun who turns up in a modern-day hospital as the work explores the intersection of science and art.
Emily Pope-Blackman, an experienced dancer who has a very physical, sensuous duet with Mr. Mozgala in the piece, had the task of helping him translate the progress he was making in the body-work sessions onto the dance floor. It was, she said, a slow process of “finding out between the two of us how much force, as he got stronger, we could risk: how hard could I pull him toward me; how much could he push me over without falling over himself.”
The piece, which also features Lucie Baker and Dr. Don Kollisch (a real-life family physician), is financed with a grant from VSA Arts, a nonprofit group that supports arts by people with disabilities. After its New York run, it will be seen at the VSA International Arts Festival in June at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Ms. Rogoff calls Mr. Mozgala “the best student I’ve ever had.” Yet both of them are emphatic about what they have not achieved.
“This isn’t a cure,” Mr. Mozgala said. “I’m always going to have cerebral palsy.”
But now he doesn’t feel so enslaved by it.
“Everybody told me there was nothing I could do,” he said. “That’s just what you hear, from the time you’re 5 to adulthood. Tamar gave me an option.”
Whether the methods they have used can translate to others remains to be seen. But Dr. Paget said their progress held a message for anyone with a neurological impairment.
“It’s not over,” he said. “There’s always a chance to change. You should not — you dare not — give up.”